3 Ways Menu Labeling Positions Your Restaurant for the Future

3 Ways Menu Labeling Positions Your Restaurant for the Future

By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, President, Healthy Dining and Sara Lucero
July 29, 2016
The restaurant industry is changing, and faster than ever before.  Industry and consumer trends such as sustainability, technology and nutrition are shaping how restauranteurs are doing business in ways many could never have imagined just five or ten years ago.  Of these many forces currently shaping the industry, menu labeling regulations are, for many, the top of mind.

Since menu labeling regulations first passed in 2010, the conversation has focused on the immediate concern of how to comply.  When menu labeling regulations and, later, guidance documents were released by the FDA, many restaurants struggled to translate the rules for their unique businesses. With the release of the final guidance in April and the compliance date set for May 5, 2017, restaurants now have a clearer sense of how to proceed, and compliance is on the fast track. 

With the focus on the nitty gritty details of menu labeling compliance, less has been discussed about the bigger picture: how menu labeling regulations will change the restaurant industry as we know it.  These rules that covered establishments are now diligently getting ready to implement by the May 5, 2017 deadline aren’t simply a new step on a restaurant manager’s checklist; they are a new way of doing business across the board.

Accuracy will become paramount to smart business
As restaurants move forward with menu labeling compliance, accuracy will be essential.  In fact, the FDA states that it may require, upon request, restaurants to provide information substantiating nutrient values, including the method and data used to derive these nutrient values as well as up to two statements attesting to accuracy and reasonable steps taken to assure that the values reported are in accordance with the food prepared.

However, this is just the beginning.  The availability and accuracy of nutrition information are becoming more important than ever for restaurants large and small.  Thanks to menu labeling regulations and increased demand for transparency in this health-focused world, restaurants’ nutrition information is increasingly expected and under the microscope by FDA, the media, public health groups and consumers alike. 

As menu labeling shapes the industry, creating comprehensive systems to maintain accuracy  -- from prep through menu printing – will become an essential part of smart restaurant business practices.  More and more restaurants are recognizing the importance of setting up these long-term systems to avoid fines, negative media stories, embarrassment and damaged or lost guest trust due to inaccurate nutrition information.

Nutrition will become central to recipe development
Recipe development is nothing new to restaurants.  The process may vary based on the concept, but creating a recipe that entices guests with the perfect combination of flavors and textures is core to a brand’s growth, evolution and bottom line.  As menu labeling takes hold of the restaurant industry, nutrition will also become a key component in the recipe development process. 

Nutrition information is taking center stage, and while some guests may choose to disregard the information restaurants will be providing as of May 5, 2017, the visible nutrition information may still affect their view of menus and brands.  In fact, in one of the first studies on the impact of menu labeling on consumer behavior in New York City, Technomic found that:
  • 86 percent of New York City restaurant-goers were surprised by the calorie count information listed on menus or menu boards, with 90 these diners claiming that the calorie count was higher than expected.
  • 82 percent said that calorie disclosure was affecting what they ordered, and 60 percent said it was affecting where they visited.
While some studies have found that consumers may not actually change their order based on the information, these surprising survey results indicate that the nutrition information guests see can make an impact. 

Developing recipes will require more education about ingredients, cooking techniques and common kitchen practices that impact the amount of calories, fat and sodium in a dish for better or worse.  This process may require additional testing and even throwing long-held practices and assumptions out the window to create dishes with accompanying nutrition information that helps the brand shine.

Culinary creativity will flourish
Already, we are seeing how menu labeling regulations, nutrition information placed front and center on the menu and an increased demand for more healthful foods and clean eating are driving creativity in the restaurant industry.  This trend will continue to grow exponentially as hundreds of thousands of restaurants with 20 or more units nationwide are required to post calories on menus.  From lower-calorie and sodium menus to growing numbers of sustainable ingredients to reimagined kids’ menus that embrace health and the evolving tastes of today’s kids, restaurants are now proving that they are at the forefront of the trends.  Menu labeling has inspired the restaurant industry to lead with creativity that reminds Americans exactly why they enjoy dining out so much.

The menu labeling regulations specify what to post and how to post it.  What they don’t specify is how these regulations will forever change the restaurant industry as we know it.  While compliance may result in some growing pains and the need for additional guidance, menu labeling is helping to shape a stronger and more vital industry with a deeper connection to guests.