Calories on Restaurant Menus: A New Reality

by Allison Knott

Going out for dinner and avoiding the thought of how many calories are in an entrée will soon be a thing of the past.  Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., the new Healthcare Bill), passed in March of 2010, states that restaurants with 20 locations or more are required to place the calorie content of standard items on all menus and menu boards.  According to the law, additional nutrition information such as fat grams and sodium must also be available in writing upon request.

The new requirement was considered a hot topic at the recent American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Boston, MA.  Although the legislation is viewed as an opportunity for dietitians to make their mark within the food industry, many challenges lie ahead.  A small report presented by Mary Abbott Hess, LHD, MS, RD, LDN, FADA showed that when dietitians were asked to calculate calories for three different recipes, very different results were submitted.  Although this was not a scientific study, it exposes consistency problems among calorie calculations due to assumptions in cooking methods, weights, and measures of recipe components.

Calorie calculations are not the only challenge to the new law.  Recipes must be standardized at each location to ensure the consumer is receiving accurate calorie information.  Most restaurants with 20 locations or more already have standardized recipes, but calculating calories in each menu item takes expertise, additional staffing, and recipe consistency – all requiring additional funds.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that approximately one-third of total calorie intake is consumed outside the home and, with the current obesity crisis, there is a push for consumer awareness.  Calorie labeling on restaurant menus is a step towards raising awareness about how many calories are actually consumed while eating out.

One question remains among nutrition professionals: how will a consumer know how calories consumed fit into their daily diet?  Calorie information may be common knowledge among some but a foreign concept to others.  Although it is not currently a requirement of the law to provide a blanket statement of recommended daily calorie intake on the menu, the FDA website reports that “FDA will not require a succinct statement of suggested daily caloric intake until FDA issues a final rule. FDA will provide specific language for this statement in the proposed rule.”  Once the rule is in place, expect restaurant menus to not only contain total calorie totals, but also a statement of how many calories are recommended on a daily basis.

The implementation of these requirements is expected to hit restaurant menus around the country by the end of 2011.  However, even though the calorie labeling on restaurant menus is a positive step for consumer awareness, additional nutrition education is still a priority to inform consumers about how menu items fit into their daily diet.

Allison Knott has been a registered dietitian since 2008 and was previously employed in a hospital in Georgia.  She is currently pursuing a master of science in Nutrition Communication.  Her passion is to communicate accurate and sound nutrition information to the general public.

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