In December of 2016, part of the Affordable Care Act went into effect that required chain restaurants, supermarkets, vending machines, and convenience stores in the U.S. to include calorie information on their menus. (The new regulations also apply to certain other venues that serve food, such as cinemas and ice cream shops.) In preparation for this requirement, many restaurants had already begun to include calorie information on their menus voluntarily.
The law affects restaurants and other retail establishments that serve food with 20 or more locations, as well as vending machine operators with 20 or more machines. Calorie information is not required for condiments, custom orders, and temporary items, like seasonal or daily specials.
A study of 66 major American chain restaurants during this time published in Health Affairs found that those with calorie information printed on their menus contained, on average, 140 fewer calories per menu item than restaurants that did not include calorie information. The authors of the study wrote, “Calorie labeling may have important effects on the food served in restaurants by compelling the introduction of lower-calorie items.” The researchers hope this trend will continue, enabling consumers to have a healthier diet with little effort on their parts.
There’s reason to believe that incentivizing restaurants to serve healthier food will be more effective than encouraging consumers to change their behavior. It’s proven that about two-thirds of consumers don’t read calorie labels, whether they’re posted or not. This finding held true regardless of factors such as race, income, and education level. However, women were more likely than men to pay attention to calorie information at restaurants. The Health Affairs study’s co-author, Julia A. Wolfson, pointed out that “the biggest impact from mandatory menu labeling may come from restaurants decreasing the calories in their menu items rather than expecting consumers to notice the calorie information and, subsequently, order different menu items.”
One factor not covered in this study is whether or not the restaurants that included calorie information before it was required by law did so to show off menu options that were already healthier than their competition. This may not have been the case, however. Restaurants that voluntarily participated could have adjusted menus to prepare for the law change, or results of the study could have been coincidental.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the law passed despite years of opposition, which hasn’t ended since the regulation went into effect. They listed dissenters like certain pizza chains, who opposed implementing changes that wouldn’t impact most of their delivery-based business. A Domino’s pizza spokesperson noted that the 34 million available pizza combinations also made providing nutritional information difficult.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration information page on the law change states that with Americans consuming about a third of their calories away from home, the regulations should be help people eat healthier by making nutrition information available on foods that aren’t pre-packaged.
“Given how often Americans eat in restaurants,” Wolfson observed, “if more chain restaurants decrease calories on their menus to a level that we are seeing in restaurants that already label, this has the potential to reduce population-level obesity.”