Healthier Food At Chain Restaurants Due To Menu Labels
July 20, 2012

Healthier Food At Chain Restaurants Due To Menu Labels

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

It is midnight and you get the hankering for fast food. You drive out of your way, get out of the car, and make your way to the counter. You find out the burger you wanted is hundreds of calories and it makes you do a double take. Researchers recently studied this type of a situation and found that menu labels implemented in King County, Washington resulted in some improvement of dishes offered, even though some entrees still had more calories than the recommended nutritional guidelines.

The findings, published in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, followed a Supreme Court decision regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that required chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menus. The advocates of the policy believe that including information on calories, fat, and sodium will help target the obesity issue. With the extra information, it is possible that consumers will make healthier choices and restaurants will change their menus to reflect diners´ interest.

"Frequent consumption of food away from home is associated with higher caloric intake and higher fat. As noted by the Food and Drug Administration, the cost of the obesity epidemic to families, businesses, and the government was over $117 billion in 2010," explained lead investigator Barbara Bruemmer, a senior lecturer emeritus of the Program in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle School of Public Health, in a prepared statement. "All of these issues underscore the need for environmental approaches to help consumers who are looking for better options."

In January 2009, King County became one of the first jurisdictions to have menu labeling and the ruling affected restaurants that had 15 or more establishments and a minimum of $1 million in annual sales. The researchers were interested in understanding if the restaurants could change their entrees to have fewer calories and also replace certain items with healthier options. The researchers looked at 11 sit-down restaurants and 26 quick-serve chains, analyzing the nutritional levels of entrees that were listed six months after the new regulations were implemented and stayed on the menu 12 months after. The team of investigators also analyzed whether all the entrees had an overall nutritional profile.

"We did find evidence of a decrease in energy, saturated fat, and sodium content after the implementation of menu regulations for items that were on the menu at both time periods," noted Bruemmer in the statement. "We also saw a trend for healthier alternatives across all entrées over time, but only in the sit-down restaurants."

Based on the results, most of the entrées were high in energy, saturated fats, and sodium when compared to dietary guidelines.

“56% of entrees exceeded the recommended level for 1/3 of an adult's daily needs, while 77% of the entrees exceeded the guidelines for saturated fats, and almost 90% exceeded the sodium guidelines. Yes, we saw improvements, but there is still a long way to go. Those are pretty hefty servings for adults," wrote the researchers in the statement.

However, the study saw that there was a drop of 41 calories from when the policy was first instated.

"While that doesn't sound like very much, it is an improvement and it is statistically significant," noted Bruemmer in the statement. "41 fewer calories could easily translate into several pounds lost over a year for an adult. It's modest, but it's a start."

The researchers believe that restaurants should provide more options and also provide clearer information on the menu labels to correspond with updated guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration that will be released later this year.

“People can only respond to what's available in the environment. If we haven't yet seen people say, 'Oh, I found something that meets my needs,' well, maybe it's because there aren't enough moderate options available on the menu. Menu labeling will help people get a handle on this 'list' of calories, at the point where they're making their decisions and putting down their money. This is where America is providing a lot of food to our children. Let's give families a chance to make an informed decision," concluded Bruemmer in the statement.