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Menu Labeling

Public Health Panacea or Harbinger of Standardization?

An order of fries at a fast-food restaurant and a nutrition label

The latest front in the nation’s battle against obesity is menu labeling. Did you know, for example, that a large chocolate shake at McDonald's has 500 more calories than a whole meal of a hamburger, small fries, and a small coke? Or that a Starbucks venti strawberry and crème frappuccino packs 750 calories a punch? Advocates of menu labeling—which involves posting the calorie, fat, carbohydrate and/or sodium content of items alongside their price and description—contend that if consumers knew such facts about foods served at chain restaurants, they could make healthier choices and consequently achieve smaller waistlines. Currently, half of large chain restaurants do not provide any nutrition information to their customers, while others post it in ancillary places, such as online and on tray liners, which are difficult to refer to while ordering.

But several metropolitan areas, including New York City, San Francisco, and Washington State’s King County, which includes Seattle, have passed ordinances requiring chain restaurants with more than 10-20 outlets (depending on the state) to include calorie and other nutritional information on menus and menu boards. In all, over 20 states, cities, and counties have introduced measures that require menu labeling. Organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest applaud the trend, calling it a triumph for consumers’ right to information and—in a nation where adults and children consume on average one third of their calories from eating out—a boon for the nation’s health.

Yet menu labeling has met resistance from two camps: the fast food lobby and champions of menu variety. Restaurant Associations in the areas mentioned above have tried to block the ordinances on the basis of the First Amendment, arguing that menu labeling is tantamount to compelled speech. Food cognoscenti have also spoken out against menu labeling laws, but for a very different reason: the labels, they argue, encourage standardization and discourage the use of seasonal, local ingredients. The reason is that nutritional labeling is expensive, costing $850-$1,000 per menu item tested. For a large corporate chain, this may not be a burden. But for a smaller, family-owned chain, the expense is a disincentive to rotate menu items frequently, offer daily specials, encourage customization, or incorporate produce from local growers, which is less predictable in its caloric content than produce purchased from a national network of food suppliers.

Whether the new menu labels will lead to a more fit America or to more "McMenus" remains to be seen.

by Rachel Levin

Should restaurants be required to display nutritional information on menus? Share your thoughts with us and other readers in our forum.

(Updated: 08/04/08 ET)

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