What to Expect From Calories on the Menu
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
It’s no surprise that given our hectic schedules and on-the-go lifestyles, eating out has become a popular pastime. We currently spend about half of our food dollars—more than ever before—on foods and beverages from restaurants, retail stores, recreational places, and schools.
Although eating out is certainly not something we should have guilt over, studies do suggest that the more we do it, the more calories we’re likely to consume. And of course more calories in can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and negative health and other effects.
Truth in Menu Labeling
One initiative designed to fight obesity by helping consumers make lower calorie choices when eating out is menu labeling. Spearheaded in 2003 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and supported by dozens of health and consumer groups including the American Dietetic Association and the American Medical Association, menu labeling was first passed in New York City in 2008 (several cities across the nation followed with similar measures.) In March 2010, the national health care reform bill, which included a menu labeling provision, was passed. By the end of March 2011, the FDA is expected to launch final menu labeling regulations that will trump local laws.
The new menu labeling legislation requires chain restaurants with at least 20 outlets nationwide to provide point-of-purchase calorie information to consumers. If requested, other nutrition information (for example, total fat, sodium, and sugars) and a short statement about how many calories the average person needs must also be provided in writing. Vending machines with 20 or more locations are also required by law to post calorie information.
Will the New Law Help?
Will knowing how many calories foods and beverages contain really lead consumers to purchase fewer calories? If so, will that help them lower their overall calorie intake? Unfortunately, few real-world studies have been done to show if and how calorie posting affects intake. Of those studies, some have shown modest reductions in calories purchased, while others have shown no beneficial effects.
- In an unpublished study by researchers from Stanford University, more than 100 million Starbucks receipts were collected in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia 3 months prior to, and 10 months after calorie posting was initiated. After calorie posting, consumers purchased an average of 6 percent fewer calories (almost all from food purchases.) Those who purchased more than 250 calories prior to calorie posting reduced calorie purchases by 26 percent after calorie posting. The researchers concluded that calorie information helped consumers eat less.
- A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in December 2010 assessed consumer awareness of menu calorie information at 45 restaurants from the 15 largest fast food chains in New York City before and after calorie posting. 1188 surveys were collected before enforcement, and 1229 surveys collected after enforcement. 25 percent of customers before the enforcement, and 64 percent of customers after enforcement reported they saw calorie information. The researchers concluded that posting calorie information did increase awareness.
- In a recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity in February 2011, researchers collected receipts and surveys from 427 parents and teens at fast food restaurants before and after mandatory labeling began in New York City in 2008. They found that knowing calorie information did not affect purchasing behavior of teens or purchases made by parents for their children. Although the teens reported noticing calorie information at the same rate as adults, fewer of them (only 9 percent) said they used the information to purchase fewer calories compared with 28 percent of adults.
- Another study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in January 2011 found no change in either total number of sales, or in number of calories per transaction 13 months after menu labeling was initiated at Taco Time in King County, Washington. The researchers concluded that mandatory menu labeling was unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic.
Only time will tell if menu labeling will be an effective tool to help consumers curb overall calorie intake. Mandatory menu labeling may also encourage restaurants to offer smaller portions (that provide fewer calories), and create more healthful, lower calorie selections that can appeal to calorie conscious consumers.
Are you for, against, or somewhere in between when it comes to menu labeling?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com. Sign up for free weekly ZIED GUIDE™ newsletter for nutrition tips and news you can use (go to right side of home page at elisazied.com). Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.