Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Does calorie labeling on menus really make a difference in food choice?

There’s been a lot of hype over the past few years about required menu labeling at restaurants. Soon restaurants and chains with 20 or more locations will be required to post the calories of food and beverages on the menus (and additional nutrition info available in writing) in most major cities, including Philadelphia. If you’ve traveled to NYC anytime in the past year you will have seen numbers next to menu items at most establishments- those are the calories.

But does posting the calorie information prompt consumers to make healthier decisions? I often discuss menu labeling with friends and family, many who say “if I’m going out to eat, I’m going to eat what I want. I don’t need to know that there are 1,000 calories in that appetizer.” However, most of the people I know don’t eat out on a daily basis. Menu labeling is really targeted to frequent consumers of fast food type restaurants. The people menu labeling targets are those that consume many meals a week from chain restaurants- like those that consume breakfast at McDonald’s, lunch from Subway, and dinner at TGIFridays.

I would think that if the calories are listed, one would be inclined to choose an option lower in calories. I would also think that if you are going to order a meal and see that it is 1,750 calories, you might reconsider. But hey, that’s just me.

There have been numerous studies recently researching the subject, and most do show some improvement in nutritional content of foods purchased. A recent study published in the  American Journal of Public Health had six restaurants in Washington record entrees sold for 30 days without and 30 days with nutrition labels. The results were somewhat promising: the average post-labeling entree contained 15 fewer calories, 1.5 g fewer fat, and 45 mg less sodium than pre-labeling entrees. Moreover, 71% of patrons reported noticing the nutrition labeling, 20.4% reported ordering a lower-calorie entree, and 16.5% reported ordering an entree lower in fat as a result of the labeling.

So, overall, nutrition labeling seems to be a positive step in allowing consumers to make healthier choices. One can be trained to identify “healthy choices”, but there is a lot of variation between restaurants. For example, in the study, 4 of 6 restaurants served a Reuben sandwich. The nutritional values ranged from 480-1730 calories, 19-83 g fat, 1770-4990 mg sodium and 39-182 g carb. These variations can be attributed to ingredients used (bread type, amount of sauce, meat, etc.,), preparation method (frying, grilling, baking), and most importantly: portion size.

In conclusion, I believe menu labeling is a positive step in government regulation. Information regarding nutrition is sparce and the common man has no idea how many calories are packed into simple menu items. By adding nutrition labeling to menu items, I think consumers will gain a stronger interest in nutrition, will make healthier choices, and ultimately lead to lower rates of obesity and lower health care costs (eventually….. in the future).

Post written by: Kelly Strogen, MS, RD, LDN

Pulos E and Leng K. “Evaluation of a Voluntary Menu-Labeling Program in Full-Service Restaurants.” American Journal of Public Health, 100(6): 1035-9, 2010.

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