5 Reasons to Be Excited for the Changes Coming to Menus and Food Labels

May 20, 2016, 11:07 AM, Posted by Jasmine Hall Ratliff

Menu labeling in food retail establishments can help foster a Culture of Health in communities nationwide—here’s why this is great news for American consumers.

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled big news from the Food and Drug Administration: Consumers will soon begin to see an updated and increasingly useful Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods and beverages. This is the first comprehensive overhaul of the label since 1994.

Soon, those little black-and-white charts will inform you of the amount of added sugars in a product, and include a “daily value” to help you understand the maximum amount of added daily sugars recommended by experts. Serving sizes will also be revised to reflect the amounts of products that people typically consume in the real world. And, calorie counts will be listed in a much larger and bolder font to make them easier to spot.

Additionally, late last month, the Food and Drug Administration released final guidance on a rule that will require all food retail chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for their menu options, and make other nutrition information available to consumers upon request.

If you’re not already excited, here is why these are two pieces of great news:

  1. Nutrition information helps consumers make informed choices.
    In restaurants without menu labeling, people—especially teens—tend to significantly underestimate the number of calories in their meals, with a quarter of people underestimating by 500 or more calories. Posting calorie counts increases the percentage of people who see and use calorie information to help them decide what to order.
  2. People want health context for the food they buy.
    Seventy-seven percent of adults report using the Nutrition Facts Panel to inform purchasing decisions, with half using it “always” or “most of the time.” Most Americans also favor requiring calorie labels on menus in fast food restaurants, sit-down restaurants and prepared food counters in grocery stores, and around a third of people say they do not have enough information to decide if they are making a healthy purchase in any of those places.
  3. People who use nutrition information tend to purchase healthier items.
    King County, Wash., was the second jurisdiction in the nation to implement a menu-labeling law. Eighteen months following implementation, one-third of customers at chain restaurants reported using calorie information to guide their purchase—and they bought meals with 143 fewer calories, on average.
  4. Businesses may start offering healthier items.
    Following the requirement that trans fat be declared on the Nutrition Facts Panel, food companies worked to significantly decrease the trans fat content of their products—and we may see a similar pattern for sugar. As for menu labeling, 18 months after the King County, Wash., requirement was implemented, chain restaurants lowered the calorie content in their entrees.
  5. The new rules apply to a wide variety of places where people buy food.
    Nutrition Facts Panels are required on nearly all packaged foods, and the menu labeling rule will apply to a broad range of businesses, including fast-food and sit-down restaurants, pizza and other takeout and delivery establishments, supermarkets and convenience stores, cafeterias, movie theaters and more.

Soon, people will have more information than ever to help them decide what food to purchase for themselves and their families—whether in a grocery store, restaurant or other food retail establishment. These changes—changes that reflect this season of growth and renewal—will help foster a Culture of Health for consumers nationwide, and that is great news!

Jasmine Hall Ratliff, is a program officer, for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation managing projects that create access to healthier foods in underserved communities and connecting community development and health. Read her full bio.