If a lack of specific information contributes to excess caloric consumption, then labeling in the away-from-home market may make it easier to moderate intake. Calorie labeling may help diners make healthier choices when eating out, or it may help them realize that they should consume fewer calories at other meals throughout the day to compensate for high-calorie meals away from home.

The 2010 Act requires chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards next to the listing for each standard menu item. The 2010 Act defines chain restaurants as those with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items. Menu and menu boards also must include a statement about suggested total daily caloric intake to provide context for consumers. The menu and menu board must include a statement that additional nutritional information, such as saturated fat, carbohydrate, and sodium content, is available upon request. Such information must be available in written form and include most of the nutrition information currently provided on packaged food labels.

Self-service food, such as buffet items, salad bars, and self-serve beverages, sold in chain restaurants also must have a sign that lists calories per displayed food item or per serving. Daily specials, temporary menu items appearing on the menu for less than 60 days, custom orders, and items being test marketed for less than 90 days are exempt.

The 2010 Act requires FDA to issue proposed regulations to carry out the new requirements no later than March 23, 2011. The calorie-posting requirements will affect only chain establishments, but these restaurants represent a sizeable share of the food-away-from-home market. According to ERS analysis of 2003-04 restaurant sales data, 55 percent of all food-away-from-home visits are at major chains.

How these proposed changes in menu labeling will ultimately affect food choices is still unknown, but evaluations of labeling requirements on packaged foods and studies of menu labeling in localities such as New York City offer some clues.