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Understanding menu labeling requirements

Understanding menu labeling requirements

Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, is a contributor to NRN and president and founder of Healthy Dining and

The Food and Drug Administration’s “Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments; Small Entity Compliance Guide” (Guidance for the Industry) serves as an easier-to-understand version of the final menu labeling rules, which were released on Dec. 1, 2014, and is a must-read, step-by-step guide for restaurants affected by the legislation. Healthy Dining’s culinary dietitians are delving into these guidelines to help you better understand the requirements and make sure you are offering accurate nutritional information.

Starting Dec. 1, 2015, restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items will be required by the FDA to provide nutrition information to consumers. This is no small undertaking. From completing accurate nutrition analysis to appropriately displaying required nutrition information, to effectively training front- and back-of-house team members on menu labeling requirements, the Dec. 1 deadline will be here before we know it. Getting started now to grasp the basic menu labeling requirements and then implementing a step-by-step plan for complying with those requirements will enable you to stay ahead of the rapidly approaching deadline.

Menu items subject to menu labeling requirements

If you are one of the more than 250,000 restaurants across the country subject to menu labeling legislation, it’s important to know what foods in your establishment will be covered by the requirements before you begin working with professionals on any nutrition analysis, menu updates or menu board designs. Starting here can help you budget for any analysis needed, as well as help with nutrition, design and training in the months to come. According to the recently released guidance document from the FDA, the menu labeling regulations apply only to “standard menu items.” These “standard menu items” are any “restaurant-type food that is routinely included on a menu or menu board or routinely offered as a self-service food or food on display.”  

These standard menu items should be prepared using standardized recipes. “Accurate standardized recipes are the first step and are very important for accurate nutrition information,” said Diana Wiggins, RD, culinary dietitian at Healthy Dining. “We spend a lot of time working with restaurants to make sure their recipes are very detailed so that the nutrient analysis is as accurate as possible.”

Most likely, there will be several items on your menu not subject to menu labeling requirements. These may include:

•    Items such as condiments that are for general use, including those placed on the table or on or behind the counter.
•    Daily specials (A menu item that is prepared and offered for sale on a particular day, that is not routinely listed on a menu or menu board or offered by the covered establishment, and that is promoted by the covered establishment as a special menu item for that particular day.)
•    Temporary menu items (A food that appears on a menu or menu board for less than a total of 60 days per calendar year. The 60 days includes the total of consecutive and non-consecutive days the item appears on the menu.)
•    Custom orders (A food order that is prepared in a specific manner based on an individual customer’s request, which requires the covered establishment to deviate from its usual preparation of a standard menu item.)
•    Food that is part of a customary market test (Food that appears on a menu or menu board for less than 90 consecutive days in order to test consumer acceptance of the product.)
•    Self-service food and food on display that is offered for sale for less than a total of 60 days per calendar year, or fewer than 90 consecutive days, in order to test consumer acceptance.

Beyond the menu basics

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We all know that menus aren’t always straightforward and simple. Depending on your concept and how your menu is built, you may be wondering how to translate menu labeling requirements to your menu items. You may even wonder if those menu items are considered “standard menu items” at all. The FDA addresses several common types of menu items that may be less than straightforward when it comes to nutrition information. These menu items go beyond the simple basics, but will still be subject to the menu labeling requirements come Dec. 1.

•    Variable items: These are standard menu items that come in different flavors, varieties or combinations, and are listed as a single menu item, for instance, soft drinks, pizza or chicken that may be ordered grilled or fried.
•    Combination meal: This standard menu item consists of more than one food item, for instance, a meal that includes a sandwich, a side dish and a drink.
•    Food on display: This restaurant-type food is visible to the customer before the customer makes a selection, so long as there is not an ordinary expectation of further preparation by the consumer before consumption, for instance, prepared sandwiches, salads and cooked pizzas.
•    Self-service food: This is restaurant-type food that is available at a salad bar, buffet line, cafeteria line or similar self-service facility, and that is served by the customers themselves.

These standard menu items will require calories on menus and menu boards in a variety of specific formats from calories displayed per serving size to ranges of calories based on available options and combinations of food choices. We’ll delve deeper into all of these items and their unique menu labeling requirements in the coming weeks, and you can consult the guidance document here.


One of the biggest questions leading up to the announcement of menu labeling requirements was whether or not beverages would be subject to the legislation. The short answer is yes for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages on the menu. Whether these are served by a restaurant employee or a “self-service beverage,” calories will need to be displayed and nutrition information available. Alcoholic beverages that are foods on display (such as bottles of liquor and mixers behind the bar) and are not self-service foods are not subject to the new requirements.

Ensure that you’re ready for the December deadline. “Restaurants should be well underway with getting ready for menu labeling. It almost always takes more time than you expect to make sure everything is accurate and ready to add to menus and menu boards,” said Mary Parsons, MS, RD, culinary dietitian at Healthy Dining. “There is time needed to make sure the recipes are accurate, time needed to gather product labels from suppliers, and time needed for quality assurance and verification. To avoid being held up by unexpected roadblocks, it’s safest for restaurants to start nutrition analysis projects several months in advance of the date that you plan to print.”  

Coming up: How accurate is my nutrition information?

How will you complete menu analysis to comply with menu labeling legislation? The FDA has very specific requirements for how to complete analysis, as well as documentation your restaurant will need to provide for compliance. Find out what you’ll need to complete your menu analysis in time for the Dec. 1 deadline.  

Healthy Dining will provide step-by-step guidance on how to comply with the menu labeling rules. Send your questions to [email protected], and Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians will do their best to find answers for you.

Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, is president of Healthy Dining. With 25 years of nutrition expertise in the restaurant industry and hundreds of thousands of restaurant recipes analyzed, Healthy Dining is the most experienced restaurant nutrition services provider in the world. Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians supports thousands of restaurants in meeting the expanding nutrition needs of their guests and helps them comply with the new FDA menu-labeling regulations. Most of Healthy Dining’s clients are featured on The National Restaurant Association has named Healthy Dining as its exclusive nutrition partner for the industry. Additionally, Healthy Dining has been selected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to implement a variety of restaurant nutrition-related research projects through the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Program.

This article has been reviewed by the FDA and updated according to the FDA’s comments.

Disclaimer: Menu labeling compliance information provided by Healthy Dining should not be construed as legal advice. Our team of registered dietitians and other personnel have reviewed the menu labeling regulations promulgated by the FDA in detail and communicate regularly with the FDA to clarify, ask questions and receive guidance. However, the information Healthy Dining provides has not been drafted or reviewed by an attorney and should not be viewed as legal advice. It is also important to note that the advice Healthy Dining receives from the FDA in conversations or which was provided by the FDA in the Guidance for Industry document released in March 2015 is nonbinding on the FDA, which expressly reserves the right to change its thinking on various matters.

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