Food Delivery Apps Should List Calorie Data: Advocates

FDA urged to make DoorDash, Grubhub, and other apps follow the same rules as chain restaurants

person using food delivery app Ridofranz

If you, like many Americans, are ordering takeout more often these days, you may have noticed that food delivery apps such as DoorDash and Postmates don’t always list the calorie information for the foods you’re selecting.

That’s why consumer and health advocates, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), are calling for federal regulators to require food delivery apps to follow the same rules as chain restaurants and disclose calorie counts.

These groups, which also include Consumer Reports, sent a letter (PDF) to the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday urging the agency to make clear that nutrition labeling requirements on menus apply to third-party food delivery service platforms.

Although these delivery services aren’t restaurants, they do have a responsibility under the law to make sure the food they’re delivering is properly branded with correct nutrition information, according to Eva Greenthal, senior science policy associate with the CSPI.

“These third party platforms are not supplying this information because they mistakenly believe that they are not required to do so,” adds Brian Ronholm, Consumer Reports’ director of food policy. “However, the menus they provide on the platforms are covered under the law, so the nutrition labeling requirements apply, even if their platforms are not considered restaurants or food establishments.”

more on restaurants and takeout

The FDA currently requires restaurants with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts for the standard dishes on menus, including the ones that appear online. Companies must also make additional nutritional information, such as the sugars or fat content, available to consumers on request.

“Check any chain restaurant’s website and you’ll find it,” says CR nutritionist Amy Keating, RD, “but calorie counts and other nutritional details often aren’t part of the info that gets transferred from the chain’s website to the menus on third-party delivery service sites.”

On Chipotle’s website, for example, customers can see the calorie counts for all the toppings they’re adding to their burrito. But if a customer is ordering the same dish through DoorDash or Seamless, that info isn’t visible.

Why does this matter?

“The menu calorie rule provides consumers the opportunity to make more nutritious choices at the point of purchase—or at the very least lets them know just what they’re getting when they order a dish,” Keating says.

And several studies have found that having calorie and other nutritional information at hand helps consumers pick healthier items. In a 2020 nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 1,013 American adults, 17 percent of those who said they had seen calorie counts on menus at fast-food and fast-casual chains said the numbers always influenced what they ordered, and 38 percent said it sometimes did. (Forty-five percent said they rarely or never checked the nutrition info.)

And recent testing by CR has found that consumers can have confidence in that information. We sent 52 dishes from 13 chain restaurants to a lab to check to see whether calorie counts on the menus matched the calorie counts in the dish, and we found them to be on target or close.

CR reached out to several popular third-party food delivery platforms for comment. Grubhub noted that on its platform, restaurants have the ability to enter calorie information for their menu items. The same is true of DoorDash, which also told us that its terms of service require restaurants to follow all applicable laws, including those related to posting nutritional information.

“We welcome the opportunity to engage with policymakers and stakeholders on this and other important issues impacting our industry,” a DoorDash spokeswoman told CR in an email.

And an Uber spokesperson told CR, “We’ve built Uber Eats to be as merchant-friendly as possible, which means that restaurants have control over their menu listings on the app, including photos, item descriptions, pricing, and adding any additional information—including calorie counts.”

The FDA has previously said it won’t be enforcing the nutrition labeling laws for restaurants while the COVID-19 crisis continues, Greenthal says. For now, that means that if the calorie information isn’t on the third-party app you use, you’ll have to go to the restaurant’s website to get it.

But the burden shouldn’t be on consumers to dig for information the law entitles them to have, according to Greenthal. Her advice to consumers: “Write to FDA and tell them you want this information where it would be easiest for you to get it, which is on the apps where you’re ordering food.”

And placing a healthy order is possible even when calorie counts aren’t clear.

“If you’re eating at typical fast food spots where the nutritional quality of most of the choices is not that great, seek out the items that feature vegetables, whole grains, or beans,” Keating says. “And remember restaurant portions are often oversized, so think small instead of supersized.”

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob