Do Menu-Labeling Mandates Motivate Restaurants to Offer Healthier Fare?
When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it also OK-ed the little-known menu labeling clause, which mandates that chain restaurants with multiple locations and specific annual revenues post nutrition information for all food offerings. Public health officials believe that seeing calorie, fat, and sodium stats on menus will help diners make more nutritious meal choices and that restaurants will be motivated to modify their menus based on changing demand from patrons.
To test how this theory plays out in the real world, researchers at the University of Washington audited menus from 37 restaurants in King County, WA, where labeling regulations were implemented in 2009 for establishments with 15 or more locations nationwide and at least $1 million in annual sales. Menus were examined six and 18 months after regulations went into effect in order to determine whether restaurants had done anything to improve the nutritional quality of their entrees.
Results from their study, which will appear in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, show that putting more nutrition information on menus helps a little, but overall, establishments are still offering too much unhealthy fare.
"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," said lead researcher Barbara Bruemmer, PhD, RD, in a news release. "We also saw a trend for healthier alternatives across all entrees over time, but only in the sit-down restaurants."
Entrees at sit-down chains such as Applebee’s and Denny’s were an average of 73 calories lighter after 12 months, while fast food joints, like Burger King and McDonald’s trimmed only 19 calories from entrees within the same time period.
Saturated fat at sit-down restaurants dropped from about 18 g per entree to roughly 16 g, while salt was slashed from more than 2,100 mg to 1,900 mg. Fast food establishments scaled sodium back by only about 18 mg to roughly 1,600 mg per entree.
Still, when the researchers compared the nutritional content of the entrees served at the restaurants in their study to what’s outlined in the USDA’s dietary guidelines, they found that the majority of meals were still higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium than is recommended for Americans. Of all the entrees in the study, 56 percent still exceeded calorie recommendations, 77 percent were too high in saturated fats, and nearly 90 percent contained too much sodium.
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