Finally, the wait is over!
Years after the rule was enacted, restaurants will be mandated to provide consumers nutritional information about the foods they serve.
Are you interested in this health information?
Will you read it?
Will it help change your order when you have some guidance about which foods fit into your health plan?
Do you think it is too much ado about nothing?
The new federal rule takes effect May 5, 2017 requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to post information about nutrition content for its menu items, similar to the labels on the food we purchase at the supermarket.
You may already have seen this information on many menus, as larger chains led the way in compliance.
The rule has been coming for what feels like years (the requirement was part of the Affordable Care Act healthcare law signed in 2010). Restaurants received an extension through May to be compliant at the same time the enforcement begins. Prior to the latest change, restaurant compliance was not checked and guidance about what would be checked was not yet given to them.
Lawmakers postponed enforcement of the new rule until guidance from the Food and Drug Administration was given to restaurateurs. However, this didn’t happen until May of 2016.
Restaurants felt that the original time frame was a rush to judgement without clear standards that many found hard to accommodate.
Rule Already Making Food Healthier
Time became important for many restaurants that decided new recipe formulations would be required once they realized the actual nutritional value of some of their items. They were concerned the consumer would protest about their caloric load. Some changes for improved nutrition would be needed before they posted the content for everyone to see.
As a result, many menu items have undergone makeovers that will benefit our health. Therefore, even if you don’t use the information provided, your meals could have a somewhat improved nutritional profile.
Calorie information must be posted to the nearest 5-calorie increment below 50 calories and 10-calorie increment above 50 calories. Other nutritional information is to be made available upon request. Certain items are excluded including daily specials, condiments and your special orders. Beverages, including alcohol, are also included in the menu labeling law. The calorie information must be on the menu in the same size and color of the corresponding item.
Changing What We Order?
Whether or not this mandated reporting of nutritional content affects consumers’ behavior and ultimately their health is a question asked by many experts with unfortunately not always positive answers.
The goal was to help us all prevent diseases of poor nutrition, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
However, if the general public ignores the information or doesn’t use it to make healthier choices, this will not produce the intended results.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report from 2014 found that 57% of people were using available menu nutrition labeling data to help them place their orders.
Women were more likely to use this information and they picked lower-calorie options when the data was on the menu.
A different survey from 2012 reported that these menu labels would have a relatively small impact on consumers’ selections.
Another study done in 2013 followed people eating at one popular fast food chain. Some were given the menu label information and educated about their personal caloric needs while another group were given no information. Both groups proceeded to eat in excess of the recommended calorie amounts with no difference between these groups.
What these earlier studies show is that even with the nutritional information, people are not using this data to make healthier choices.
Hopefully and perhaps as time has gone by, more people are interested in their own health (maybe because their health insurance incentivizes healthier beneficiaries) and will find that consumers are really using nutritional information for the health of it!
Obstacles to Using Menu Labels
Many feel that there are reasons that people won’t be making the most of this new nutrition information.
Some consumers report that they don’t notice the information already on the menu in restaurants.
Some say that consumers are not aware of their own calorie needs. They don’t know how much they should actually be eating so find it hard to alter their choices without a clearer goal.
Nutrition experts are concerned that focusing solely on calories provides a misleading health goal, as the calories from soda are not similar to calories from a grilled chicken sandwich or yogurt parfait. More health information that is consumer-specific needs to accompany a menu change.
However, when will we expect the consumer to take over control for their own health? When will consumers seek their own health info and determine their own calorie needs. It isn’t that hard to find how many calories we need or which foods contain nutrients needed for health.
Many people are already wearing health and fitness trackers linked with meal plans and nutritional apps that can easily give them this type of information. Their bands will steer them in the direction of healthier food choices right now. How many access this information to help meet their health goals?
There is also a concern that the information may not be accurate. What if the chef decides to get creative and doesn’t follow the recipe used to calculate the nutritional data?
Labeling As A Guide
Even though nutrition calculations are not always accurate to the decimal point, depending on what ingredients are used – fresh or frozen or canned, locally or globally grown – and age, this information will still help guide our meal selections so that we can maintain our health goals.
Knowing whether something is high in sodium or double the calories we seek for dinner will help us stay on track.
Most of us have trouble deciding what to order off the menu with so many great meal options and this extra bit of data will help steer us toward a more healthy choice.
It is one more piece of information and a good resource to keep in our health tool box.
I for one, will be looking forward to seeing the information on the menu, just as I read the labels on the food I buy at the supermarket to help me choose healthier options for me and my family.
How about you?