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Will You Stand Up for Menu Labeling?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Americans live busy lives and eating away from home has become a way of life for many of us. Surprisingly, studies have found that one third of our calories and one half of our food dollars go to food sources outside of the home. The dailySpark launched the Diet Friendly Dining and Food on the Run series, to help our readers make informed decisions about what they purchase when dining away from home.

On a previous blog I asked the question, "what do you wish casual dining restaurants would do differently?" Many of you shared a similar sentiment as BAMOM19 when she posted, "I wish they would all offer healthier choices, but at the very least should be required to post the nutritional content of all their dishes!"

What if I told you the quest to get nutrition information on menus started in 2003? Would you wonder why you still don't routinely see the information where you dine?

The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act was first introduced to the 108th U.S. Congress in November 2003. It was introduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ensure that consumers receive information about the nutritional content of restaurant foods." At that time it followed the Congressional process, was read twice and then referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Since all proposed bills and resolutions die at the end of each Session of Congress and are cleared from the books, modifications of this bill have been made and reintroduced numerous times since 2003.

The most recent bill was reintroduced to the first session of the current 111th Session of the Congress last month. The Howard M. Metzenbaum MEAL Act was reintroduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to extend the food labeling requirements of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 to enable customers to make informed choices about the nutritional content of standard menu items in large chain restaurants."

At the same time, the restaurant lobbyist have been hard at work and introduced a competing bill, the Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act of 2009 in March 2009. This bill was introduced "to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to nutrition labeling of food offered for sale in food service establishments." It was first introduced in 2008 to the last Session of Congress but died in committee at the end of the session. As of today, both the LEAN Act and the MEAL Act have been read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for review.

This is where politics comes in to play. With two competing pieces of legislation being considered while support is divided, the likelihood of any decision being made this time around seems very unlikely. The restaurant industry opposes the proposed MEAL Act while many health groups oppose the proposed LEAN Act. The largest reason the health community opposes the LEAN Act is because it includes measures that would nullify any state and local actions currently in place and would prevent any additional local and state measures in the future. This blog is NOT intended to be political but too simply inform you a about the legislative process that is currently taking place.

According to information from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, 78% of Americans support menu labeling while only half of the large chain restaurants provide any nutrition information about their menu items. After so many years of trying to influence change nationally with little progress, we are seeing things begin to change on the state and local level thanks to the leadership of New York City.

Last year New York City began requiring restaurants to provide basic nutrition information on menu boards, printed menus and food displays. They were the first US city to independently initiate a menu labeling system. Public reaction has been positive and many people have been surprised by the calorie counts of the foods being offered. Last week, dailySpark Guest Blogger, Birdie Varnedore, shared how "cool" she thought New York City was because of this new law.

The Bottom Line - Menu labeling allows people to make informed decisions when eating away from home. It allows people to "vote with their wallets" related to their restaurant and food preferences, which is likely the biggest reason the restaurant industry is so opposed. While it will likely take local, state and/or federal legislation to make this information routinely available, it doesn't have to. Patrons can request or even demand that this information be provided voluntarily. When mandates are put in place through legislation, it is always way more costly and time consuming than when things are done voluntarily. Perhaps the more we nutrition minded people request or even demand accurate information at the time of purchase in the places we choose to dine and spend our money, perhaps the sooner we will see voluntary menu labeling that will help us improve and maintain our health.

I think the blog comment by BIGGIRL208 makes a great deal of sense. She shared, "why blame the restaurants? They are responding to market demand. When "low carb" was in fashion, menus started featuring low-carb entrees. When low fat was in style, salads made it on to the menu - do you remember when salads were few and far between when you looked at a menu? Given that dining out (not fast food) is usually either a celebration or at least a desire to eat "tastier food", I really am not surprised at what I find on menus. It's up to us customers to start asking for different choices if we don't like what's on offer!" The same can be said for asking for nutrition information when we are ordering. What if we ALL started asking the server about the calorie, fat and sodium content of menu items when we were placing our order? At first they would likely tell us the information isn't available and try to pass it off. What if we asked to speak to the manager about the information? The manager probably wouldn't have the information either, especially for casual dining chains, but imagine if they had to be put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to provide the information numerous times each shift. Do you think they would begin to tell their superiors that they are being asked "frequently" about nutrition information for menu items?

The bottom line to me is that the power does not reside with the local, state or federal government to make change happen. The power resides with US, the nutrition minded people willing to stand up and ask and even demand that we be provided with basic nutrition information for our health in return for our hard earned dollar. I believe we CAN make a difference if we stand up together with one voice and make our desires known. As long as we continue to stay silent and wait for the politicians to make a decision that is best for them instead of demanding from restaurants what is best for us, we could be waiting another six years for information that could be provided voluntarily to us in six months.

What specific actions do you think patrons could take to persuade the restaurant industry to voluntarily provide basic menu labeling information? What are YOU willing to do to help influence change?

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Sadly, the truth seems to be that some of those who SHOULD be aware of calories in restaurant food (and food in general) don't care about the calorie content!
Only those of us attempting to reduce or maintain our weight are even interested! Report
I don't think the information needs to be right next to the menu, but the nutritional information for each item SHOULD be available SOMEWHERE (website, by request, sure by the menu if you would like).
Only the chain stores have their nutritional values and even have tools such as nutritional calculator on their website for people who like to modify their menu.
BUT I usually love eating at local restaurants instead of big chain stores. It would be great if there are some rules that those restaurants should have the nutritional value too. You can only guess from similar meals but without the recipe, how would I know what I am eating?
Even when I cook for myself, I use recipe calculator tools to get an ESTIMATE of my food. An estimate is all I need. It would be so great if EVERY food serving places have their nutritional value for each items when requested. Sure, it might be some extra work but there are several tools that helps.
If you give me the estimate for nutrition info so that I can put your meal on my plan and adjust it accordingly, I will probably eat more at the local places. Report
I try to always look up nutritional information online before going out to eat. Especially if it's a place I've never been.
It would be great if they had that information readily available on their menus! Report
I absolutely love having the calorie count next to the item, but I also absolutely hate an over-regulated society. Consumers should demand menu labels, not lawmakers! Report
I am not waiting on a law. I call the place and ask to speak to a manager. I ask the manager if there is nutritional information for the food they serve, so I can make an informed number if not I let him know I will come and eat at their establishment when they have the information avalable. Several restaurants do have it avalable when requested. Report
I remember when we just ate the four food groups, limited sweets, and were active outdoors. It seems there were less obese people back then. While I like being healthminded, I sometimes wonder if it has become much more complicated than it should be. Report
The last thing we need is more regulation! Honestly, we all have a pretty good idea about the caloric content of the food we eat regardless of where we get it. Most restaurants are accomodating to special requests (hold the sauce, dressing on the side...) it is up to us to figure it out. If a restaurant posting nutritional info makes you more likely to frequent it, then go for it, but don't force all to do same. Report
I do with that restaurants would be required to offer the nutritional details for their menu items. (all of the menu items) It would help me to make more informed decisions and it makes it seem like they have something to hide when they don't offer it. I have sent emails to restaurants asking for nutritional information on something that I really like from their menu only to be told it's not available. Report
If I know in advance where we're going, I check the menu ahead of time and decide on a few options that will fit into my day. That feels way less restrictive than 'I can only have X for dinner'. Unfortunately some places don't post their nutritional information online :(

That aside, we try not to eat out too often anyway. We can generally cook better for much cheaper - and it even takes less time than going out or waiting for delivery.

I wish Vancouver would do what New York has done, though. Report
I rarely eat out anymore because trying to find something healthy has become a big hassle. Report
My daughter loves Jamba Juice and I have noticed that they are putting the calories right on the board or in front of the food. The employees are always happy to help and make suggestions. Report
I live in NYC and this works really well for me. I love being able to make informed choices about food. I don't always make the healthiest choice, but at least I know what I'm getting and can plan for it. It's not always possible to go online in advance and plan out what I'll order, so I love having it right on the menu.

And if other cities and/or states follow the NYC model, smaller restaurants aren't affected. It's only required for chains with a specific number (I'm not sure what the limit is) of locations. So the family-owned pizza place on the corner doesn't have their calories listed, but Pizza Hut does. Report
many restaurants have their nutrition information on their website or other link...and, dwlz.com (Dottie's Weight Loss Zone) has the nutrition information for hundreds of others!! if I know where I am going, I plan ahead--I search the nutrition information and make my decision BEFORE I get to the restaurant! if I don't have advanced notice, I usually choose a salad or other "friendly" meal. if the nutrition info were on the menu, then I could probably make good choices OTHER than salads!! I am for it...but, remember, the more restaurants have to cater (no pun intended) to the masses, the more the food will cost!! just sayin'... Report
I like having the nutritional information on menus. It really makes me aware of what I am putting into my body. I know that when I chose to eat out it will most likely be higher in calorie/fat than if I prepare my food at home. It just takes planning. I have accepted that I need to take the extra time and effort to plan what I will eat out if I want the healthy results I am looking for. Report
I was at an Au bon Pain in downtown Boston yesterday and noticed that they provided calorie info on the sheves of their refrigerator cabinet, which holds their salads, fruits, yogurts and several snack items. I thanked the manager and asked him to extend the practice to the other food in the store. Report
I am a stronger supporter of Restaurants providing menu labeling to it's patrons. I have written several restaurants requesting that they change their policy of not providing information. Additionally, if I request information re: menu selections, and it is not provided, I don't frequent that restaurant anymore, and again, I write their cooperate office indicating why I am no longer a customer. So far it hasn't made a difference, but if enough people do it, I gurantee restaurants would start providing this information. If fast food restaurants can do it, then higher end restaurants should be able to do it. Report
This day and age, you can find most nutrition values on the internet. If the chain doesn't provide them on line and they aren't available to you at the restuarant, then simply don't go there.
It is up to us to chose to order responsibly. Not your server, not the restaurant manager.
It is not up to them to make their portions smaller, it is up to you to divide it and take the rest home, or order a meal to share.
Bottom line, we have to stop blaming the marketers, the advertisers... anyone who is easy to blame, and start taking responsibility for our own actions. McDonald's did not make me fat.. I chose to supersize... !
"Advertisers target kids..." Who buys the groceries??? I am pretty sure the advertisers don't go the the store for you. Learn to say no when your children want unhealthy things.
I believe this is true not just for nutrition values.. but for anything.. We have to be held responsible for our actions in all aspects of life.
Sorry, off my soap box now..
This article is a bit old but I just read it. Recently, I have been more frustrated with restaurants. Usually, I have an ok time finding nutrition information but Applebee's doesn't provide any at all. Also, even though Olive Garden provides ALL of its nutrition information online and says it is available in the restaurant, I have only held this paper copy in the restaurant one time. Other times, the server just tells me about the "olive leaf" on the menu that tells me low fat items. I know from looking online that there are lower calorie items that miss the "low fat" list by 1g of fat. And now, when asking for the nutrition facts, they give me a flyer with the gluten free and low fat items only. No one has a clue about the FULL MENU nutrition facts that I know they have because I have had it provided before! It is very frustrating that they restaurants cannot keep up with the consumer but we are all far and few between. I agree. What if the manager was asked multiple times a day about the nutrition facts? Then what would they do? Until that day, I will continue to be obsessive and look everything up before I get to the restaurant. For those days I cannot, I will just have to make the best decision I can based on what I know about eating right! Thanks for this article! Report
I'm torn on this, too. I think that restaurants should provide nutrition information on the menus, but I don't think the government should force them to do it.

As far as blame goes, everyone is to blame for this. Restaurants are to blame for serving crappy and bad for you food in out of control portion sizes, but the consumer also shares some of the blame because they make the choice to eat it. Many of the chain restaurants DO provide nutrition information on their websites and the consumer can go and look up this information of their own free will and can choose to eat or not to eat at a certain place. They can choose to eat the entire entree or part of it. The lawmakers are to blame for not putting in and enforcing rules and regulations on what restaurants and food companies are allowed to claim as far as nutrition content.

Personally, until something is passed, we should all just do our own homework and vote with our wallets. And I don't trust what would end up being passed, either. Whatever bill ends up being voted on will be watered down and have no teeth and probably be written by the restaurant industry. Report
Very lucky that we have it in NYC. A bit shocking at first, and sometimes I forget about it... walked up to an ice cream vendor and there were the numbers. I quickly passed on the ice cream! Report
I'm with Anne2002. PLEASE do not ask your server. As someone in the hospitality world, I can tell you right now, servers are waiting on more tables at once right now than ever. WIth people eating out less, and buying less expensive items they have to be busier and busier. To be honest, they don't know and don't care about you wanting to know, they are more willing to make something up then waste time and lose tips because their other tables are waiting. They will most likely not go to their manager and the manager is in the same boat that 25,000 a year doesn't make them care . Write to the corporate headquarters. Thats your best bet.

I don't think private companies should be forced to do something by the government either. Keep writing, when it's good for business, they'll do it! Report
Whenever you go to a restaurant, ask to speak to the manager and request that they begin showing nutrition information on their menus. Report
I'm torn on this one. I'd prefer the government stayed out of this kind of thing. It would hurt small independent restaurants unless they are proactive and do it voluntarily. And it could get out of hand, where do you stop in deciding what must be listed. But it does work to get the attention of and force behavior changes in people who otherwise go blindly about their lives.

For me personally, I prefer and go more often to restaurants that offer heart-healthy options. I can find enough information online and on SparkPeople to scare myself out of the temptations to eat some fried food.

I think that in addition to providing the nutritional value of a food (calories, sat fat, sodium would be my top 3 items to list) there should also be a chart showing what the recommended daily values are so someone seeing an entry with 4000mg Sodium will have some way to know that is way too high. Report
...am standing up with arm raised for Menu Labeling ! Report
This is actually a case where I DO blame the restaurants instead of the consumer (usually I feel the other way around). I also blame the lawmakers. I think it is a no-brainer that restaurants should be required to provide nutritional information in a readily accessible format (even if it is pamphlet laid out in stacks in a conspicious place if they don't want to do it on all the menus). Federal legislators should have passed such a law at the same time as the food labeling went into effect for other products (and they should even expand this to include meats, etc., that are currently exempt). People have a right to know what their food contains and its nutritional content so why should restaurants balk at this.

To me the yadda yadda about the consumer not supporting that is just a cop out.

This is a case where the government SHOULD be making the decision if no one else wants to take responsibility for it.

As for the consumer if they don't want to know what they are eating, they can just not look at it. Report
I agree with RISSISBORED, that posting nutritional info could encourage restaurants to prepare healthier options, especially if patrons prefer those options! Those of us who have been lucky enough to have found SparkPeople and sites such as RealAge, are at an advantage due to the vast amount of well written information we have at hand. Being health conscious people we also need to continue to spread the Spark by example and word of mouth.
Kath Report
When I was staying in Japan, I was happy to know that most chain restaurants listed on the menu nutrition information. I wish they'd do it here. Report
I'm torn.

The dieter side of me would love to see the nutritional information. I would think it would probably change a lot of my choices when eating out.

The practical side of me realizes that this requirement could seriously hurt a lot of small businesses. Printing up new menus or sign boards, getting foods tested etc is no big deal for those with deep pockets but for those already struggling in this economy it could be a deal breaker.

Honestly, I think the practical side of me wins in my head. I know not to order deep fried or cream sauces or cheese covered if I'm trying to eat healthy. If I do, it's my fault, not the restaurants. Report
Along with the NYC laws, the new Yankee Stadium provides calorie listings on the menu at all of the food vendor stations. It is amazing to see the calorie contents of all of their foods. I would be curious to see if there are any statistics on whether the lower calorie vendors have received more business because of those postings. Report
While I think having nutritional content listed is helpful, it's not crucial to my patronizing an establishment. A level of common sense and practically needs to be adhered to. You "know" that a grilled chicken breast is going to be nutritionally better for you than fried fish. One other factor that no one seems to consider is the cost of printing menus, etc especially when consumers taste buds and purchasing habits are constantly changing. Yes, most establishments (the bigger chains) have a decent budget for printing, but what about the smaller independently owned operations that prefer to spend the money on quality ingredients and service? I think the major issue is "I" not "US" need to be more RESPONSIBLE for "me" and what I "Choose" to eat. How many times do you stand in the checkout line at the grocery store and see one of those cute $.99-$1.49 pocket calorie guides? Pick one up and educate yourself, and be responsible for what you do. If you are a member of SP, you know what the rules are and how to measure out your portions. Take that monster chicken breast, cut it into thirds, take 2 of them home in a bag and eat one. How hard is that??? Report
The nutritional data (even if abbreviated) should be on all menu's. Maybe it would encourage the restaurants to find healthier ways to prepare meals. Report
My husband and I often talk about (when we pay off our debt) opening a healthy restaurant. One idea was to print the meal's total nutritional information on the back of your receipt. That could later be expanded to having the information online. Debit cards allow us to identify patrons... perhaps we'd have to modify with a login or an alias. Report
I think the information should be available on the menu's or on request. A lot of people are stating that they look up the restaurant ahead of time and figure out their meal. What about the person that doesn't have internet access? If you don't know you are going to end up eating dinner at XYZ, what do you do then? What if you don't have time to surf and plan out your meal ahead of time? Frankly, I am getting a bit resentful of the "look it up on the web" answer for everything. Companies are providing less and less customer service and leaving us to do the work for them. That's my humble opinion. Report
I think it's extremely important for restaurants to have nutrition information on their menus. I saw a special on this last week, actually. The guy being interviewed explained that sometimes, even "healthy" food isn't all that healthy because the portion size is so enormous!

Also, as someone who has a serious sweet tooth and love of junk food, it's often hard for me to say no when I am out at a restaurant...but having the nutrition information does help me make better choices.

For example...a few months ago, I used to get a Oreo cookie milkshake from Jack-in-the-Box EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. Seriously. But then one night I decided to look up the nutrition information...turns out my favorite, delicious milkshake boasted almost 800 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat!! That stopped me dead in my tracks. And I haven't had a milkshake since. Report
I live in Silverdale, WA, and so far the only fast food restaurant that I know of to post nutritional information on their menu boards is Jack N The Box. Just seeing the amount of calories and fat grams in those foods keeps me on track to only order a salad with the grilled chicken option! I don't eat fast food often, but occassionally it is necessary. The amount of sodium that restaurants is amazing to me, I really see no need for that. Report
Whenever I got to a "new to me" restaurant, I ask the server which items are "low sodium, low fat". Usually s/he will give me one or more options. If asked, I always reply that "I have a medical condition" (I do). Since dressings/sauces/gravies are a major culprit, I will ask for those on the side or left off all together. I've learned to eye portion sizes and I know which cooking methods are best for me.
It certainly would be nice to have nutrition labeling on the menu, but then which nutrition items would be listed? Just calories, fat, and carbs? or calories, total fat, saturated fat, total carbs, sugars, fiber, sodium, cholesterol, protein? or calories, total fat, saturated fat, mono fat, poly fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, total carbs, soluable fiber, insoluable fiber, sugar, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron? or ????
Should we also specify whether the menu item is Kosher, Vegan, Lacto-Ovo, Organic, or ????? Report
The NYC menu labeling is very helpful, you may never buy a brownie in this town again. Report
I was in New York last week and it was great to have all the information right there! Report
If the menu doesn't have at least some dishes with the nutritional values on it, I usually wear out the waitress or waiter with questions regarding the preperation, ingredients and quantities of a particular item so I can at least guestimate the calories. If they can't help I just ask for a plain salad with fat free dressing or if they don't have it, a small side of salsa or just plain viniger.
I figure they are losing money when all I eat is a plain salad which they could have avoided if only they had some "Good for You" menu items. Report
I was at Applebees with friends and wanted dessert, I asked our regular waiter what the nutrition information was on the "Shooters" he went back to the manager and said that it was not available. I would think it would be on the package with the instructions on how to prepare the food, wouldn't you? I think they are afraid to tell us because the content is so high we would not order it and hurt their business..... Maybe that is what we have to start doing, if they don't have the information don't eat it. Report
It is not just Restaurants. Our company cafeteria often posts the nutrition information for many of the dishes but some are always missing and some are only for odd sizes of portions. Report
Doonesbury is currently doing a comic run about restaruants posting the nutrition information on the menus. I don't think the average reaction in the comic will be much different from the real one if it becomes a broader requirement, like nationwide.
I stand up for menu labeling ... although I live in an area where all the chain restaurants (fast food) provide the information (at least on their web sites) and the other restaurants are locally owned. Report
I usually want Washington to stay out of my life. But I think this is a good idea. Report
I absolutely support and *stand up* for menu labelling!!! Report
You wrote: *The manager probably wouldn't have the information either, especially for casual dining chains,*

I think it's the casual dining chains that are MOST likely to have that information. It's locally run and operated restaurants that won't.

I guess I'm of two minds on this. If required nutrition labeling causes the small locally run places to go out of business (much as the toy testing legislation unduly impacted the home-based natural toy businesses - but they weren't the ones selling toxic toys!) then it's not a good thing. People who care about nutrition know how to evaluate menu items: sauteed or grilled preferred over fried, lean meats over fatty ones, etc. But perhaps required labeling would help those who don't know how to make these judgments - but on the other hand, do they even care? I dunno.
I think many people DON'T want to know what is in their restaurant food. There are millions of us reading the DailySpark that do want to know... but what about the millions that are in denial about their current health and want to be oblivious to the calories they're consuming?!

I prefer to eat at restaurants that do provide the information. I wish they all had COMPLETE information, it's frustrating when they only estimate "about 500 calores/ 10 g fat", and none of the sodium or even Carbs or Protein is listed.

I would hesitate to ask at the restaurant. I'm afraid that the server, being forced to retreive their manager and possibly get in trouble for not "taking care" of the customer themselves, will alter my food or do something disgusting (like what is portrayed in movies like "Waiting" and has been reported to me by people that I know that have worked in the food service industry). Report
I absolutely support and *stand up* for menu labelling!!! Obese America needs all the help it can get! Report
We eat out about 3 times a month. I spend alot of time on the websites of the available resturants in our area checking out the nutrional info. I know what i am am going to order before I leave the house. I also know which resturants I can't eat at. Report
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