Should Restaurants Be Required to Include Calories on All Menu Items?

Imagine you are at a restaurant, browsing the menu and trying to decide what to order. You see a variety of dishes, from salads and sandwiches to burgers and pizzas, but you have no idea how many calories they contain. You wonder if the salad is really healthier than the burger or if the pizza is worth the extra calories. You wish you had some information to help you make an informed choice.

This is a common dilemma for many people who eat out, especially in the United States, where eating out accounts for 20-25% of adult energy intake. However, since May 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required chain restaurants and other retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts of standard items on menus and menu boards. This is part of the government’s efforts to tackle obesity and promote healthy eating.

But what are the benefits and drawbacks of this policy? Does it help consumers make better decisions, or does it have unintended consequences? In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of requiring restaurants to include calories on all menu items and the current status of its implementation and evaluation.

The Pros of Calorie Labeling

The proponents of calorie labeling argue that it has many advantages for consumers and public health. Some of the pros include:

  • It increases awareness and knowledge. Calorie labeling provides consumers with clear and accurate information about the energy content of their foods and drinks. It can help them compare different options and choose the ones that fit their dietary needs and preferences. It can also educate them about the recommended daily calorie intake and the sources of calories in their diet.
  • It influences behavior and choices. Calorie labeling can motivate consumers to reduce their calorie intake and select healthier eating options. Studies have shown that calorie labeling can lead to a modest decrease in calories ordered and consumed, especially among women and more health-conscious people. Calorie labeling can also encourage consumers to eat less at other times of the day or to increase their physical activity to balance their calorie intake.
  • It improves health and well-being. Calorie labeling can help consumers prevent or manage obesity and related chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. By reducing their calorie intake and improving their diet quality, consumers can lower their risk of these conditions and improve their overall health and well-being. Calorie labeling can also help consumers with special dietary needs, such as allergies, intolerances, or medical conditions, to avoid foods that may harm them.

The Cons of Calorie Labeling

The opponents of calorie labeling argue that it has many disadvantages for consumers and businesses. Some of the cons include:

  • It is inaccurate and misleading. Calorie labeling may not reflect the actual calorie content of the foods and drinks served due to variations in ingredients, preparation methods, portion sizes, and human errors. It may also not account for the nutritional value, quality, or freshness of the foods and drinks or the effects of other factors, such as fat, sugar, salt, fiber, and protein, on health and satiety. Calorie labeling may also mislead consumers into thinking that low-calorie options are always healthier or that high-calorie options are always unhealthy, which may not be the case.
  • It is ineffective and counterproductive. Calorie labeling may not have a significant or lasting impact on consumers’ behavior and choices, especially among those who are less aware, interested, or motivated by calorie information. Studies have shown that calorie labeling may have no effect or even increase calorie intake for some consumers, depending on their personality, mood, hunger, and social context. Calorie labeling may also have negative psychological effects, such as guilt, shame, anxiety, or obsession, which may lead to unhealthy eating patterns, such as bingeing, purging, or restricting.
  • It is costly and burdensome. Calorie labeling imposes additional costs and challenges for restaurants and other food businesses, especially small and independent ones. They have to invest time, money, and resources to analyze the calorie content of their menu items, update their menus and menu boards, train their staff, and comply with the regulations. They may also lose customers or revenue if consumers change their preferences or demand lower prices for lower-calorie options.

The Status of Calorie Labeling

The status of calorie labeling varies by country and region, depending on the laws and regulations that govern its implementation and enforcement. In the United States, the FDA’s menu labeling rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name, offering for sale substantially the same menu items and offering for sale restaurant-type foods. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA has provided flexibility regarding the menu labeling requirements for these establishments, as they may have limited menus or staff, or may operate only through takeout or delivery.

The status of calorie labeling also depends on the scientific evidence and public opinion that support or oppose its effectiveness and acceptability. Despite the growing number of studies and surveys on calorie labeling, there is still a lack of conclusive and consistent results on its impact on consumers’ behavior, choices, and health outcomes. There is also a diversity of views and attitudes among consumers, food businesses, health professionals, and policymakers, regarding the benefits and drawbacks of calorie labeling, and the best ways to implement and evaluate it.

Conclusion

Calorie labeling is a controversial and complex policy that involves nutritional, behavioral, and economic aspects. It has potential benefits for consumers and public health, such as increasing awareness, influencing choices, and improving health. It also has potential drawbacks for consumers and businesses, such as being inaccurate, ineffective, and costly. The implementation and evaluation of calorie labeling depends on the balance and trade-off between the pros and cons, as well as the evidence and opinion that support or oppose it. Calorie labeling is not a silver bullet, but rather a tool that can help consumers make informed and healthy decisions when eating out.

Facts and Figures Related to Calories

Here are some facts and figures related to calories, along with links to sources:

  • A calorie is a unit of energy that measures how much energy food or drink provides to the body. The calorie content of food and drink is also known as the energy density.
  • The average adult needs about 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, but this may vary depending on age, sex, size, and activity level.
  • Eating more calories than the body needs can lead to weight gain and obesity, which can increase the risk of various health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
  • Eating fewer calories than the body needs can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, which can impair the body’s functions and cause health complications, such as anemia, osteoporosis, and infertility.
  • The main sources of calories in the American diet are grains, added sugars, fats, and oils. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend limiting the intake of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, and increasing the intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy.
  • The FDA’s menu labeling rule requires restaurants and similar retail food establishments to provide calorie information for standard menu items, as well as additional nutrition information upon request, such as total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber, and protein. The rule also requires these establishments to display two statements on menus and menu boards, one indicating that additional nutrition 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.