Calorie Disclosure Coming to a Restaurant Near You

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

In the coming year, many restaurants and other establishments that sell food and/or beverages will have to list calorie counts for those foods and beverages. This includes pizza, hot dogs from big box stores and popcorn.

Whether you are trying to watch your waistline or manage your health, the goal of providing nutrition information is to help consumers make wiser and more healthful dietary decisions when eating away from home.

That’s important because Americans consume about one-third of their calories away from home and eat an average of 200 extra calories when eating out.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released the final rules for calorie labeling on menus that will soon be a reality and a source of nutrition information at more than 220,000 restaurants nationwide. Several restaurant chains already list calorie counts on their menu boards.

Health experts convinced the Obama administration that this initiative was essential to tackling the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and as a result, menu labeling became a provision in the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

FDA Menu Labeling #1: Menu Labeling

Calorie information must be clearly displayed near listed prices on standard menu items. A statement regarding suggested daily calorie intake is required to help consumers put the information into context. Additional nutrient information (i.e., fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, etc.) must be available upon request.

Sit down restaurants, coffee shops, take-out foods, pizza, self-serve salad and food bars, popcorn at movie theaters or amusement parks, food at convenience or warehouse stores, ice cream stores, hot dogs and frozen drinks from convenience or warehouse stores, made-to-order foods at a grocery store or delicatessen, muffins at bakery or coffee shops, and certain alcoholic beverages are subject to the calorie display requirement.

Pizza restaurants were granted flexibility on toppings and won approval to list a range of calories to account for toppings. They must also include the number of slices in a pizza.

Food not included: daily specials and foods intended for more than one person such as catering trays, loaves of bread or pounds of sliced deli items.

Independent restaurants, bars, grocery stores, food and ice cream trucks and food served on airplanes are exempt from the ruling.

These rulings take effect on November 25, 2015. The FDA requires calorie information listed on menus and menu boards in restaurants, retail food establishments and vending machines with 20 or more locations.

FDA Menu Labeling #2: Vending Machine Rules

While nutrient information is available on most vending food options, the new ruling requires that this information be visible before purchase and near the food or selection button, on a display sign or displayed electronically. Vending operators who own or operate 20 or more machines must comply and list contact information on the machines. Vending operators have two years to comply with the new standards.

Inspiring Healthier Offerings

With the visible calorie information, consumers will hopefully think twice before ordering higher calorie items. “As a Registered Dietitian I believe in the importance of providing information to consumers to empower them to make the best choices for their dietary needs,” says Joy Dubost, RD, senior nutrition director for the National Restaurant Association that supported menu labeling.

“We believe that the Food and Drug Administration has positively addressed the areas of greatest concern with the proposed regulations and is providing the industry with the ability to implement the law in a way that will most benefit consumers,” a National Restaurant Association representative said in a statement.

In addition to providing consumers with calorie information, it is hoped that retailers will be motivated to revise recipes and offerings to meet the new consumer demand for healthier foods and beverages. One 2013 study showed restaurants introduced new menu options that, on average, contained 60 fewer calories than in 2012.

Will It Work?

Studies have shown mixed results on whether Americans change behavior when calorie counts are posted; however, these findings are not based on the new law.

Knowing how many calories you need may help put the information into perspective. “It’s difficult to pinpoint what affects consumer choice because a number of factors influence menu selection. But we do know one of the primary barriers to using calories on the menu is a general lack of understanding about calories,” says Darden Restaurants director of health and wellness, Cheryl Dolven, RD.

Find out your calorie needs at choosemyplate.govOpens a new window or see a registered dietitian.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 60 percent of adults use calorie information on menus to decide what to order.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in December 2014, most Americans favor labeling calories on menus in fast food and sit-down restaurants, only 10 percent opposed it. Most favor labels for prepared foods in the grocery store, too.

These new changes may help people manage their weight and eat healthier diets.


Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior director of nutrition, Nutrition National Restaurant Association

Cheryl Dolven, MS, RD, Sr. Director, Health and Wellness, Darden.

Binh, TN and Powell, L. The impact of restaurant consumption among US adults: effects on energy and nutrient intakes. Public Health Nutrition. 2014; 17 (11): 2445-2452

Bleich, S. et al. Calorie Changes in Chain Restaurant Menu Items: Implications for Obesity and Evaluations of Menu Labeling. AJOPM. 2015; 48 (1): 70–75

CDC Website: Restaurant Menu Labeling Use Among Adults — 17 States, 2012, July 11, 2014 / 63(27);581-584. ( a new window)

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.comOpens a new window a new window a new window