Menu Labeling… will it change what you eat?

Are you seeing numbers behind your favorite food items or beverages while dining out? These numbers are significant and report the calories in your menu choice item. Whether you forgot to pack a lunch for work or you just decided to grab a bite to eat on the go, calorie information is now required to be displayed on the menu boards of chain restaurants.

As part of the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act of 2010, restaurants and other food outlets with more than 20 locations nationwide (under the same name) are legally required to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. The final menu labeling ruling went into effect on May 7, 2018.

Why Menu Labeling?

Look for calorie information on drive through menu boards. Fast foods are often calorie dense and upsizing can significantly increase your daily calorie intake.

Look for calorie information on drive through menu boards. Fast foods are often calorie dense and upsizing can significantly increase your daily calorie intake.
Photo Credit: USDA

People can live extremely busy and often stressful lives balancing classes, personal relationships, and work; therefore, dining out has increased. Americans consume more than one-third of their calories away from home, and frequent eating out is associated with increased intake of calories. These individuals may not know or may underestimate the calorie and nutritional content of ready-to-eat and convenience foods. Due to the change in how America eats, the Food and Drug Administration now regulates the calorie information on restaurant menus, menu boards, and vending machines. These changes are meant to help individuals make informed decisions in their food choices by including calorie information on food menu boards, displays, and standard menus.

What are the Benefits?

This final FDA Menu Labeling Rule has the potential to help all consumers. National data reflects that approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight or obese, and overconsumption is a major contributing risk factor. The potential benefits of menu labeling include:

  • increased knowledge of caloric content of foods, to help encourage consumption of lower-calorie options
  • increased interest in lower-calorie options, to help stimulate:
    • re-creation of current menu items to produce lower calorie or decrease portion sizes
    • introduction of new lower-calorie menu items

This law helps encourage Americans to choose healthier foods when dining out and coincides with a goal of Healthy People 2020:

“Promote health and reduce chronic disease risk through the consumption of healthful diets and achievement and maintenance of healthy body weights.”

Who is Affected by the Ruling?

This ruling applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments with more than 20 locations doing business under the same name and offering similar foods. Establishments include:

  • Grocery stores
  • Movie theatres
  • Pizza delivery
  • Amusement parks
  • Entertainment venues
  • Chain cafeterias
  • Coffee shops
  • Bakeries
  • Convenience stores serving “restaurant-type foods”
  • Certain vending machines
  • Businesses that voluntarily register with FDA

What are the Requirements and What Foods are Covered?

The rule applies to foods that are standard menu items. A “standard menu item” is a restaurant-type food that is commonly included on a menu or commonly offered as a self-service food. Standard menu items must clearly list the calories on the menu or menu board next to the name or price of the food item. Foods located on buffets and salad bars that are considered self-service foods must display the calories on signage near each food item. Condiments, custom orders, daily specials, or seasonal items are exempted and do not require calories to be displayed.

Vending machines of 20 or more owned or operated by the same vending operator, must display calories on a small placard, sticker, or electronic or digital display near the vending food item or selection button. Food packages where calorie information is visible before purchase are exempt.

Having the total calories listed for meal combinations will help you make informed choices.

Having the total calories listed for meal combinations will help you make informed choices.
Photo: USDA

On standard menu items, a succinct statement “Additional nutrition information available upon request” is required on menus and menu boards. The additional nutrition information that restaurants and similar retail food establishments must include:

  • Total Calories
  • Total Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Trans Fat
  • Protein
  • Total Carbohydrates
  • Sugars
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Fiber

Combination meals that include more than one standard menu item require that calories be listed differently.

  • Two option meals (steak or chicken taco) each calorie amount will be displayed and separated with a slash (280/305).
  • Meals with three or more options (for example half tuna sandwich and half salad, half tuna sandwich and apple, or half tuna sandwich and chips) require that calorie amounts be listed as a range (400-520).
Even salad bars require that calories be listed.

Even salad bars require that calories be listed.
Photo: USDA

The law also requires establishments to disclose calorie information on signs adjacent to foods on display. Self-service food items must include the calorie information as well. The final rule requires a “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary” statement to be included on the menu or menu board. This general nutrition statement uses 2,000 calories as a reference amount for daily values. Individual calorie needs vary depending on age, gender, height, weight, and current physical activity level.

If you like pizza and one slice is not enough, learn how to determine the total amount of calories consumed. In the case of multiple-serving menu items, the calories should represent the whole menu item (e.g., pizza 1,200 calories) or a per a serving amount (e.g., pizza 200 cal./slice, 6 slices). The next time you are at the movies or dining out, take a peek at the calories listed and see if the information helps to change your menu item choice.

Knowledge is power. If you are reminded that one donut has 300 calories, you might be less likely to order two!

Knowledge is power. If you are reminded that one donut has 300 calories, you might be less likely to order two!
Photo: USDA

Further Reading

To help learn what your calorie needs are visit

To learn more about the Nutrition Labeling Factsheet

To request Product Testing and Nutritional Labeling


  1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Menu Labeling: Supplemental Guidance for Industry. Food Guidance Documents. Retrieved from
  2. Dabrowska, A. (2018, February 5). In Congressional Research Service. Food Labeling: Nutrition Labeling of Restaurant Menu and Vending Machine Items. Retrieved from
  3. Food and Drug Administration. Menu labeling: supplemental guidance for industry. ( ). Published May 2018.
  4. Larson, Nicole, et al. “Calorie Labels on the Restaurant Menu: Is the Use of Weight-Control Behaviors Related to Ordering Decisions?” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 118, no. 3, 2018, pp. 399–408., doi:10.1016/j.jand.2017.11.007.
  5. Nutrition and Weight Status. (n.d.). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  6. (n.d.). Panera Bread. Retrieved from

Originally published 03/19

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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