Menu Labeling

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Although consumers can find nutritional information on the product labels of the packaged foods they purchase in grocery stores, this information is typically not readily available in restaurants.  Yet, Americans spend almost half their food dollars on foods prepared outside their homes, and these foods have significant health impacts because they are all too often high in calories, fat, sodium, or present other nutritional concerns. Menu labeling laws seek to address this information gap and help consumers make informed choices about the foods they eat outside of the home, as well as providing incentive for prepared food retailers to reformulate their products to make them healthier.

Congress has passed a federal menu labeling law, which is in the process of being implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (see below).  Prior to this federal law, however, several state and local jurisdictions passed their own menu labeling laws.  Many of these faced litigation, or the threat of preemptive statewide legislation.  This underscores the need for menu labeling advocates to be prepared to respond to legal challenges

The underlying premise of menu labeling is that consumers who get information about the nutritional content of restaurant and other prepared foods will make healthier choices when eating out, which will lead to decreased caloric intake and better long-term health outcomes. Many public health experts and advocacy organizations have long endorsed menu labeling as a promising health promotion strategy.  Nonetheless, menu labeling legislation has been controversial, and has provoked significant debate in the media, federal, state and local legislative bodies, as well as in the courts.  Early evaluations of menu labeling laws indicate that they may influence some, but not all, consumers to purchase healthier meals. Research in this area is ongoing.

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