But will it even make a difference?

By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 07, 2018
Credit: Photo by Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

We’ve been told this day would be coming for eight years. And now, after plenty of pushback, repeated delays, and so many restaurants already complying that the actual deadline feels somewhat meaningless, that day has come: Restaurant chains across the US are now required by the FDA to post calorie counts on all of their menu items.

Originally passed into law as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and then initially finalized by the FDA in 2013 before a series of delays gave chains plenty of time to comply, these new menu-labeling requirements mean that “restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations” must provide customers with “access to calorie and nutrition information,” according to the FDA.

“Covered establishments must disclose the number of calories contained in standard items on menus and menu boards,” the government agency continues. “For self-service foods and foods on display, calories must be listed in close proximity and clearly associated with the standard menu item. Businesses must also provide, upon request, the following written nutrition information for standard menu items: total calories; total fat; saturated fat; trans fat; cholesterol; sodium; total carbohydrates; sugars; fiber; and protein. In addition, two statements must be displayed—one indicating this written information is available upon request, and the other about daily calorie intake, indicating that 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

If today’s big compliance date feels anticlimactic, that’s because it is. Assuming that, despite all the delays, compliance would be inevitable, many of the largest chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and others have already been posting this information for quite some time. Meanwhile, for those chains that haven’t complied, little urgency exists to do so immediately: The FDA has openly stated that it plans to spend the next year educating holdouts about the new rules instead enforcing them. As a result, some chains have simply stated that they plan to get around to it, like the Melting Pot that told CNN they expect to be in compliance by the end of the month.

Still, despite all the setbacks, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., backed his agency’s decision to proceed with the compliance date today. “Many have heard me cite this statistic, but it bears repeating because this is a driving factor for us at the FDA and for those in Congress who crafted the law: Americans currently eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home,” he said in a statement. “At the same time, rates of child and adult obesity in the U.S. are at historic highs. Research, including a recent RAND Corporation, suggests that people choose menu items with fewer calories when they have access to calorie information and that such information does not affect their satisfaction with the choice they make or their ratings of the restaurant. Studies suggest that access to clear and consistent information about calories in restaurant items can help reduce calorie intake, which over time could make a difference in obesity rates.”

Soon enough, seeing a chain restaurant menu without calories will be as odd as grabbing a box off the shelf at the grocery store and not seeing a Nutrition Facts panel. Won’t it be nice to be more at peace with all of your horrible dietary choices?