The Affordable Care Act: Helping Consumers Make Healthier Choices

This post is part of a weekly “Did You Know” blog series that highlights important, but not well known features of the health reform law about prevention, wellness, and personal responsibility for our health. 

Nutrition LabelDid you know that the Affordable Care Act requires large-scale restaurants and vending machines to display nutritional information at the point of purchase for consumers?

An important but mostly overlooked measure in the Affordable Care Act’s effort to combat obesity rates and bring down health care costs in the United States is likely to be noticed by consumers all over the country when it goes into effect later this year. The health reform law mandates chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display the calorie content of standard items sold on the menu board or table menus, and to make other nutritional information, like fat, cholesterol, and fiber content, available in written form upon request. This new rule also pertains to vendors with at least 20 vending machines across the country. These vendors will have to make the calorie content of the foods sold visible to consumers at the point of purchase. Because this rule applies only to large-scale restaurants and vendors, small business owners with fewer than 20 locations will not be affected.

The goal is to make information available to consumers so they can make healthier choices when eating away from home. Studies show that consumers are increasingly getting more and more of their diets from food outside the home, from restaurants, fast food chains, and vending machines. Americans report spending almost half of their food budgets on away-from-home foods, and most parents report feeding their families restaurant-prepared meals at least once or twice a week. But American consumers know little about the nutritional value of the food they are consuming when eating out, and most tend to underestimate the number of calories and fat content in away-from-home foods. I like to think of myself as a fairly knowledgeable consumer, but I was shocked last week when I discovered that the sandwich I had ordered had over 1,000 calories—had I known the nutritional facts when I ordered, I definitely would have changed my dinner plans!

With obesity and other diet-related chronic health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease at alarming levels and on the rise in our country (two out of every three adults and one out of every three children in the U.S. are overweight or obese), nutrition and public health advocates believe that disclosing the caloric and nutritional value of foods served at restaurants and available in vending machines will help consumers make better choices about the food they eat away from home. Experts say that it is hard to tell how much nutrition labeling will affect individual consumer choice, and that more research needs to be done on this topic. However, studies show that, after nutrition labeling became mandatory for packaged foods sold in grocery stores, the demand for healthier cheeses tripled and the demand for fat-modified cookies increased 15 percent. The American Dietetic Association agrees, even small individual changes in food choice multiplied by millions of consumers can make a significant impact on public health and help improve the food supply by consumer demand. And it can bring down health care costs, both at the individual and national level, by preventing unnecessary and costly chronic health conditions often exacerbated by obesity.

While the impact of this legislation seems difficult to predict, who can argue with the notion that knowledge is power for American consumers?

For more information about the importance of nutrition in your diet and educational resources, visit the American Dietetic Association online.

For more on how the Affordable Care Act is working to combat obesity and other chronic health conditions, visit 

Interested in an in-person presentation on how health reform is rolling out in Illinois and what it means for individuals? Are you a direct service provider or advocate for vulnerable populations and interested in how the Affordable Care Act will impact the population you serve? Rachel Gielau, health policy expert at the Shriver Center, is giving free in-person presentations to Illinois audiences on how health reform is affecting individual and families in Illinois. Contact Rachel Gielau at 312-368-1154 to set up a presentation for your organization!

This blog post was coauthored by Rachel Gielau.



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