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FDA Hopes To Educate (So You’ll Put Down the Cheeseburger)

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FDA Hopes To Educate (So You’ll Put Down the Cheeseburger)


Updated: March 14, 2019    Published: December 26, 2014

Choosing a low-cal fast-food menu option can feel like a bit of a gamble. Salads often seem a smarter option than sandwiches, but we all know the opposite can be true. Fortunately, making healthier choices is about to get easier.

The FDA published on Dec. 1, 2014, final menu and vending machine calorie labeling rules as required by the Affordable Care Act. It’s big news.

While some states, cities and chain establishments (e.g., McDonald’s and Starbucks) have already implemented menu labeling, the new FDA standards are intended to prevent chain establishments from having to meet different requirements based on their location. The announcement means several industries must begin working toward standardization—restaurants and similar retail food establishments have one year to comply; vending machine owners and operators have two years.

It also means consumers will have more information about the food they buy on the go—from the movie theater to the drive-thru—which is a significant portion. The away-from-home food market continues to grow. We eat about one-third of our calories (32 percent) away from home—thirty years ago, it was more less than a fifth (18 percent).[1] In 2012, 43.1 percent of all food spending was on food away from home.[2]

Chains, not small business, impacted

The new FDA rules require restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” that are A) part of a chain with 20 or more locations: B) doing business under the same name; and C) offering, for the most part, the same menu items to list calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. These establishments must also provide a succinct statement on menu boards and all menu pages notifying consumers that nutrition information is based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet and that individual calorie requirements may vary.

Vending machine owners and operators that have more than 20 vending machines must provide calorie counts for certain foods so that consumers may see them prior to purchase.

Some establishments and situations in which the new labeling rules apply include:

  • Sit-down restaurants
  • Drive-through windows
  • Take-out establishments, including pizza chains
  • Made-to-order foods ordered from grocery stores or delis
  • Self-serve salad and hot food bars at restaurants and grocery stores
  • Bakeries and coffee shops
  • Movie theaters and amusement park popcorn
  • Ice cream shops
  • Vending machines
  • Certain alcoholic beverages listed on menus

The rules do not apply to:

  • Food trucks
  • Airplanes
  • Passenger trains
  • School cafeterias serving foods through USDA school lunch and breakfast programs
  • University and college food facilities that meet the criteria
  • Certain food items intended to be consumed over time or stored for later (e.g., a whole cake or loaf of bread)
  • Foods meant to be consumed by more than one person or that require additional preparation before consuming (e.g., meat and cheese from the deli counter, large deli salads)
  • Certain bulk foods (e.g. nuts, olives)
  • Condiments not listed on menus or menu boards as part of menu items (i.e., bulk condiments and those sitting on a table)
  • Temporary menu items (i.e., those available less than 60 days per calendar year)

Industries offer mixed reactions

The new requirements have been a long-time coming. The Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, included nutritional labeling provisions. However, as reported by The New York Times, “the final rules were delayed for three years, in part because of fierce opposition from pizza and movie theater chains.”[3]

While developing the standards, the FDA considered more than 1,100 stakeholder and consumer comments. As would be expected, reactions to the final rules vary. McDonalds and the American Beverage Association both released statements supporting the final rules.

“In order for customers to make informed choices, whether visiting McDonald’s or elsewhere, McDonald’s supports a level playing field where all retail establishments offering foods and beverages are subject to the same menu labeling requirements.” said Cindy Goody, PhD, RDN, and Sr. Director-Nutrition & Menu Innovation for McDonald’s USA. “McDonald’s is in the process of reviewing the new requirements, and believes this is a benefit to both the restaurant industry and to customers seeking consistent information about calories.”

The Food Marketing Institute, a food retail industry advocate group whose members include 40,000 retail food stores and 25,000 pharmacies nationwide, in a press release said the FDA missed the point, and argued that grocery stores are not chain restaurants. The National Grocers Association and National Association of Convenience Stores also expressed disapproval for similar reasons.

The National Association of Convenience Stores stated in a press release that the FDA’s menu labeling requirements “don’t recognize how convenience stores, grocery stores, delivery operations and other approaches to foodservice are different than restaurants. Further, the intent of the law was designed for big chain restaurants with simple, standardized menus at all locations and Congress’s intent was to ensure those menus provide clear, understandable nutrition information.”

The Food Marketing Institute and National Association of Convenience Stores support H.R. 1240, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which is intended to be, as stated by the NACS, a “less burdensome approach to menu labeling by limiting the provision in the healthcare law to establishments that derive 50 percent or more of their revenue from food that is intended for immediate consumption or prepared and processed on-site.” It is currently pending in Congress.

Rules touted as win for consumers

USDA data suggests that we eat more food, higher-calorie foods, or both when we dine away from home.[4] And while we can’t predict how calorie label requirements will change these tendencies and impact our nation’s waistlines, the FDA sees them as both desirable and useful to Americans.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., said in a press release that, “people today expect clear information about the products they consume.”

She added, “Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes so, too. In a press release, the organization stated its strong support and belief that the labeling requirements will help consumers with healthy decision-making.

“Menu labeling is an important step forward in helping address our obesity epidemic,” said Academy president Sonja L. Connor, MS, RDN, LD. “These initiatives are supported by legitimate research, but to be truly effective must include nutrition education and policy evaluation, and ensure calorie counts are accurate. Context and education are critical to making menu labeling a meaningful tool for consumers.”





Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Final Menu Labeling Requirements Strongly Supported by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [Press Release].” Nov. 25, 2014.


American Beverage Association. “American Beverage Association Responds to FDA Menu and Vending Machine Calorie Labeling Rules.” Nov. 25, 2014.


Food Marketing Institute. “FDA Missing the Point of Menu Labeling: Grocery Stores are Not Chain Restaurants [Press Release].” Nov. 25, 2014.


McDonald’s. “McDonald’s Statement on FDA Menu Labeling Regulations.”’s-Statement-on-Menu-Labeling-Regulations.


National Association of Convenience Stores. “New FDA Menu Labeling Regulations Bad for Convenience Stores and Small Businesses [Press Release].” Nov. 24, 2014.


National Grocers Association. “NGA Statement on FDA Menu Labeling Rules [Press Release].” Nov. 25, 2014.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Finalizes Menu and Vending Machine Calorie Labeling Rules [Press Release].” Nov. 25, 2014.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling; Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines.” A Rule by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 1, 2014.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants SimilarRetail Food Establishments.” A Rule by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 1, 2014.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “How Many Calories? Look at the Menu!” Nov. 25, 2014.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Questions and Answers on the Menu and Vending Machines Nutrition Labeling Requirements.” Last updated Nov. 26, 2014.

[1] United States Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. “Food-Away-from-Home.” Last updated Oct. 29, 2014.

[2] United States Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. “Food-Away-from-Home.” Last updated Oct. 29, 2014.

[3] Tavernise, Sabrina, Stephanie Strom. “F.D.A. to Require Calorie Count, Even for Popcorn at the Movies.” The New York Times. Nov. 24, 2014.

[4] United States Department of Agriculture. “Chapter 2: Profiling Food Consumption in America.” Agricultural Fact Book. N.D.

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