Calorie Counts are Coming to Restaurant Menus, but Probably Not at Theme Parks

November 25, 2014, 11:58 AM · The United States Food and Drug Administration today announced its new rules that will require restaurant chains to post the calorie counts of their menu items on the menus themselves. Up until now, many restaurants have gotten around publication requirements by making calorie counts and other nutritional information either available by request on under-the-counter handouts, or by burying them under small links on their websites.

When governments first started requiring calorie count disclosure, some restaurants did publish the numbers on their menus, only to see sales decline as consumers stopped ordering high-calorie gut-busters. So restaurants starting looking for ways to publish the numbers in ways that most customers wouldn't ever see them.

Menu at Gru's
Many restaurant menus will need to start listing calorie counts along with prices. But theme parks might not have to.

The FDA made a point in its announcement today of stating that "(t)he menu labeling rule also includes food facilities in entertainment venue chains such as movie theaters and amusement parks." But it's difficult to envision which theme park restaurant actually will end up having to display calorie counts on their menus, given the other conditions in the new rules. As the FDA press release states:

"The menu labeling final rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items."

I can't think of a single theme or amusement park chain in the United States that operates a food service facility that would meet those requirements. Not even Six Flags has 20 of the same restaurant locations across its chain, using the same name and serving the same menu. Even if a park chain did have that many identical restaurants, it simply could change of their names in an effort to get around the new requirements. If the FDA wants to consider entire parks as a "location," again, not even Six Flags has 20 parks across the country. Only if the FDA considered all of a chain's restaurants together could a theme park chain be subject to the 20-location condition, but again, those locations would be operating under different names and with different menus.

Where might theme park visitors see calorie counts on menus in parks, then? Perhaps at counter-service stands branded to outside fast-food chains such as Subway and Panda Express. But one wonders if Disney's Starbucks locations would be subject to the new rules, as they operate in the parks under unique names. Sure, there's a discreet Starbucks sign at the entrance and logos on the cups, but a lawyer could earn a few billable hours making an argument that those different names exempt the locations.

Ultimately, though, if the new FDA rule manages to change consumer behavior, as it is intended to do, theme parks might need to go ahead and start listing calorie counts anyway. If consumers come to expect to see the numbers next to selections outside theme parks, they might start demanding to see the same inside the parks, too. At some point it would be easier just to list the calories (and put out a self-congratulatory press release) than to deal with a persistent queue of complaints at guest relations.

Qualifying restaurants will have one year to start complying with the new requirements.

Do you want to see calorie counts and nutritional information before you make a decision about which food to order? Tell us in the comments.

Replies (13)

November 25, 2014 at 12:04 PM · I personally at least want this information AVAILABLE. I recognize that some people don't care on vacation, but I go so often it matters to me!
November 25, 2014 at 12:22 PM · Surely they should at least be required to have pamphlets or something similar that lists the calories,etc... I think Fast Food restaurants have to do that already?
November 25, 2014 at 12:23 PM · sounds like it might affect those theme parks where they have a McDonalds/Burger King/Subway et al restruant included on the property.
November 25, 2014 at 1:35 PM · More nanny-state nonsense.
November 25, 2014 at 3:40 PM · If it's "nanny state" for me to know what is in something I'm about to buy and what it costs, then bring on the nanny state. In business, "trust me" is for suckers. A calorie count is part of the information about what I'm buying when I'm ordering food. Heck, I'd like to see better disclosure of ingredients, too, but this'll do for now.
November 25, 2014 at 5:36 PM · To answer your question, no.

I do not need a document to know that the Kitchen Sink at the Beach Club is hazardous to my health! :)

But I am from the Midwest so......

November 25, 2014 at 6:22 PM · I'm type 1 diabetic. So are about 3 million other U.S. citizens (JDRF fact sheet). We need good info. More than just a calorie count, other info such as carbs are important. It determines how much insulin to take. For this set of 1 percenters, it really matters

I can estimate pretty good for common items but everything unusual is hard. If at a theme park, it's probably not my normal diet. I don't care if it's on the menu, just make it readily available. Disney is a leader for allergies, gluten free, kosher... Be the nutrition info leader also.

November 25, 2014 at 11:38 PM · While I tend to strongly recoil at the thought of unelected government bureaucrats handing down regulations without specific directives from Congress in the form of legislation, I can't see why any consumer would be up in arms about this move. I want to know what's in the food I'm ordering, and how good (or bad) it is for me. Even on vacation, isn't that information most people would welcome?

Knowing Disney's influence, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them find a loophole to avoid this. But I also wouldn't be at all surprised to see them embrace it, either. We'll see what happens.

November 26, 2014 at 3:04 AM · With all the walking around parks (and maybe swimming at the pool) then to me it really doesnt matter about calorie counting on vacation. It does matter massively to me the 6 weeks before vacation! :-)
We actually have had a lot of calorie info displayed in the UK for some time now and I feel that it should be readily available. If you're on vacation & don't care - great, order away. If you do - there it is!
November 26, 2014 at 6:38 AM · I like having this info. Helps me decide if I want to get a smaller meal so I can enjoy that humongous sundae later (and in reverse, sometimes it helps me choose a bigger meal, "that cost how much and there's so few calories! I'm going with the burger!").

Like others said, on vacation I burn lots of calories walking, so I don't really care what I eat. But as I live in NYC where this has been in place for years, I really miss it when traveling. It's nice to have some guide.

I see Disney doing this, as once it's in every fast food joint in the country, guests will expect to see it and be upset if it's not there. Plus, fits with their healthy options message.

Sometimes government needs to prod private industry to do things they don't want to do. In this case, it's "tell the public more about what you're selling." It's not "change your food," or "don't sell that." Seems reasonable.
(@Brett: just a point, this is a law that Congress passed; they asked bureaucrats to come up with a plan for posting calorie counts. The FDA is not acting on its own.)

November 26, 2014 at 8:30 AM · I believe nutritional information should be available to customers who request it, but to slap calorie counts on menus to me is "nanny state". I don't think it's "nanny state" to force restaurants to provide the information, but the whole idea of, "look how many calories are in this item, you're going to be fat if you eat it" nonsense is not what government is supposed to do. We are all adults, and have the freedom to make our own decisions without being given a guilt trip from some overreaching government agency. If a product is truly "unhealthy", then it is within the government's authority to protect its citizens from that hazard by forcing the maker to create a safer version or outlaw it altogether (like trans-fat), not profit on the sale of the hazardous item through taxes like cigarettes, marijuana, and soft drinks.

Also, I question the actual calorie counts presented on restaurant menus. While many places have an assembly line approach to preparing food, there are still variables that can dramatically affect the calorie count on a dish. Placing a calorie number next to the price actually does the consumer a disservice since it may simply be one ingredient (like mayonnaise) that causes the number to soar, and asking for the removal of that ingredient can dramatically affect the ultimate caloric intake. Additionally, some restaurants may have some variability in how dishes are prepared (precise weights and measures) that may also affect final caloric intake.

Additionally, the entire philosophy of placing calorie counts on menus is based on a false premise that people will change their behaviors when confronted with the "startling" information. To me, this is the lazy approach to nutrition, and all of the money spent on these initiatives (along with the absurd school lunch program) would be far better spent on programs that teach people what is in our food and what constitutes a "healthy" diet. A simple ad campaign similar to the old Schoolhouse Rock pieces would be far more effective than putting an extra number on the menu.

November 26, 2014 at 8:51 AM · @Joseph: good to know! No qualms whatsoever about this, then!
November 27, 2014 at 8:55 AM · Knowing Disney, they would probably cave.

They are in Cali after all.....

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