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What are the effects of calorie labels in restaurants?

A new study investigates the calorie content of food in chain restaurants following the implementation of calorie labels on menus. 

In 2018, the United States government began enforcing a policy that requires larger chain restaurants to include calorie labels on their menus.  This includes any chain restaurant with more than 19 locations in the country, and the goal of this policy is to increase public awareness and transparency for consumers.1   

Calories refer to the amount of energy in the food we eat, and that energy is used to fuel daily activities as well as the biochemical processes that sustain the body.  The number of calories burned varies significantly between individuals and depends on a variety of factors, such as activity level, muscle mass, body weight, age, sex, and more.  Calories are essential for living; however, regularly consuming a calorie count that is much greater than the body’s requirements may lead to weight gain. 

Every individual is different, and while some people find counting calories to be unproductive or distressing, others may find that tracking their daily calorie intake is helpful for their well-being. This policy may benefit certain individuals who want to know this information, and it may ultimately help consumers make informed choices.

Some researchers also speculate that this increased level of transparency may influence restaurants to be mindful of the calorie content of their menu items and even begin using lower-calorie ingredients to appeal to some consumers.  However, there is a lack of research on the real-life effects of this policy since its implementation in 2018.  

Researchers at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts performed a study to assess potential changes in the nutritional value of menu items following the implementation of calorie labels in restaurants.1  The results were analyzed, and the finished study was published in JAMA Network Open.

The study investigated 59 large chain restaurants and compared their menu items from two different time periods: 2012-2017, and 2018-2019.  The earlier time period was intended to represent restaurants’ menu items before the policy’s implementation in 2018, and the later time period was intended to represent them after the policy was implemented.  Some menu items were excluded, such as those sold before 2018 where the calorie count could not be reasonably calculated.  

The remaining menu items were then sorted into a variety of different categories using MenuStat’s categorization system to determine menu item type, and these categories included entrees, appetizers, side dishes, and others.  For each menu item type, the mean calorie content was compared between the two time periods to determine whether there were any significant changes. 

The study found that items available before 2018 did not have any significant changes in mean calorie counts after the policy was implemented.  However, items that were introduced after 2018 exhibited, on average, lower calorie contents than those introduced prior to 2018.1  

The results of this study could potentially suggest that restaurant items introduced after 2018 may have, on average, lower calorie contents than those introduced before 2018; however, more research is needed to confirm this idea.  Moreover, more research is needed to determine whether these changes were a result of the policy or other social factors. 


  1. Grummon, A.H., Petimar, J., Soto, M.J., et al (2021, December 30). Changes in Calorie Content of Menu Items at Large Chain Restaurants After Implementation of Calorie Labels. JAMA Network Open 4(12):e2141353. Doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.41353  
  2. MenuStat (2022). MenuStat: Interactive Restaurant Nutrition Database. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: U.S.A. Accessed 2022, January 6, from

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