Restaurant Calorie Counts Are Here to Stay


The menu labeling law finally went into effect this month and here’s what it (basically)  means


After several years in the making, chain restaurants with at least 20 locations in the US (along with a few other requirements), have to list the amount of calories every menu item has on the menu. That means alcohol too. They also have to provide other nutrients (like fats, sodium, carbs, fiber, sugar, protein, etc.) if a guest asks for it (though these numbers don’t have to be on the menu - but in a brochure/booklet/website etc).

What seems so simple to the average Joe or Jane - adding a couple of numbers next to the name of the item - can actually be rather complicated to do.

First, the restaurant has to make sure all locations use a “standardized recipe” - no more pinches of this and handfuls of that. The recipe has to be followed to a T to make sure the nutrition information is accurate. That also means lots of staff training and quality assurance if you’re not a mega-chain whose food is already pre-portioned or pre-packaged.

Restaurants then have several options for analyzing their items for the nutrients - like sending food to a lab and using special nutrition software. Most opt for using software programs to crunch the numbers (it’s more economical, can be quickly edited if the recipe ever changes, and gives a good breakdown of how the numbers add up). I’m simplifying here, because actually crunching the numbers takes the right amount of nutrition and culinary expertise to get it right (oh and the software needs to be legit too - kind of important).

Once the numbers are crunched, the calories get copied on the menu board, printed menus, websites, online ordering apps and anywhere you can place an order for food or drinks. Unless it’s a daily special, temporary/seasonal or test item - then it gets a hall pass.

If you can see it on the menu and buy it, the calories have to be posted

Because the law and the complicated process that’s involved is so new to the industry, FDA (aka the real food police - not us dietitians :) will be as supportive as possible with enforcing compliance for the first year. So don’t expect too many restaurants going to food jail just yet.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a huge shift in the industry - towards greater transparency about what’s IN the food + drinks they serve, HOW they’re made, and WHERE the ingredients are from.

Here’s a few of the trends we’ve seen:

REWORK: Restaurants have started to rework their recipes to make them a little bit healthier (even they are shocked sometimes when they get numbers back)

REDUCE: The amount of choices on the menu is getting a little smaller - strictly a logistical strategy. Fewer menu items = less recipes to analyze = more space on menu to fit the calories

REVEAL: Restaurants are sharing nutrition and ingredient info in a variety of ways beyond the menu - on receipts, on diy ordering kiosks, on websites, even on walls inside the restaurant

The ultimate goal behind menu labeling is that it will help us make more informed choices that fit our unique individual lifestyles and push us towards a more healthful (or mindful) approach to eating. If anything, at least it gets us talking about nutrition (nothing wrong with that in our books)!