Chain restaurants have been promoting healthful menu options -- such as Burger King’s recent low-cal French fries launch. But a recent study shows that entrees overall haven’t changed much at the top U.S. chains.
“Restaurant menus did not get any healthier over time,” says Helen Wu, one of the researchers whose study appears Tuesday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That’s not to say that consumers can’t find items that have fewer calories, or less fat, sodium or sugar. But it’s been a one-step-forward-and-one-step-back process, says Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System.
She and colleague Roland Sturm, senior economist at the Rand Corp., looked at menus from 2010 and from 2011 using restaurant websites for nutrition information. They evaluated changes to more than 26,000 entrees at 213 chain restaurants.
The average entree in 2010 and in 2011 contained about 670 calories, the researchers said. Sodium levels dropped from 1,515 milligrams per entree to 1,500 milligrams a year later.
“Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously,” Wu said in a statement.
The study results “do not support the hypotheses that voluntary restaurant industry efforts, the impending implementation of a federal menu labeling law, or any changes in consumer preferences led to meaningful changes in the average energy [calories] or sodium content of entrees between 2010 and 2011,” the researchers wrote.
The National Restaurant Assn. was looking at the results before commenting.
[Updated at 3:34 p.m. PDT, Oct. 1: Joy Dubost, the National Restaurant Assn.’s director of nutrition, said the progress the restaurant industry has made may be lost in the way the study was done. For example, she noted, that a year’s time is too little to track change. She said companies have committed to reduce calories or sodium, but “some of these commitments have to take time to ensure you are bringing the consumer along,” she said. “Ultimately, they’re the ones who will dictate what’s on the menu.”
In addition, by using menus, the researchers could not take into account customer behavior that might adjust dishes, such as leaving off a sauce or salad dressing. Dubost also noted that there is a large variability in the calorie counts of the entrees, making the average less enlightening.]
“If you’re on the lookout for healthy changes, you may see some signals of change that are happening. But we need to step back and look at the big picture,” Wu said in an interview. She cited Burger King and its new Satisfries, with 30% fewer calories and 40% less fat. But around the same time, she said, the company started selling a $1 French Fry Burger -- a $1 burger with four fries on it. (It has 360 calories.)
The study noted that 7% of the restaurants had a significant increase in calories of entrees; 10% had a significant decrease. Sodium was lower in the items added to the menu than in those removed in 17% of restaurants; it was increased in 7%.
The study is a follow-up to one published last year. In that study, released in May 2012, Wu and Sturm said 96% of the entrees they reviewed at 245 U.S. chains failed to meet guidelines for the combination of calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For that study, published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, Wu and Sturm looked at the nutritional content of 30,923 menu items from 245 brands of restaurants. The restaurants included fast-food, buffet, takeout, family-style and upscale restaurants, Wu said.
The majority of the entrees did not exceed 667 calories -- one-third of the calories that the USDA estimates the average adult needs each day, they said. They looked at restaurants’ websites from February to May 2010. But they found that few of the entrees met recommended limits when considering calories, sodium, saturated fat, and fat combined.
For Tuesday's study, the researchers found that children’s entrees overall did not become more healthful. But Wu noted such changes as offering fruit or vegetable side dishes would make a difference.
Their study comes at a time when Americans spend nearly half their food budget on food away from home. The restaurant world is awaiting implementation of the federal labeling law, which some public health authorities hope will enable consumers to make more healthful choices and nudge restaurants to offer more healthful food. Wu said she expects it to change how health-conscious people order at restaurants. But she said it also could prompt people with less money to order higher-calorie foods to get more value for their money.
The law would require chains with 20 or more locations to put calorie counts on menus and provide additional nutrition information on request.
Wu noted that the National Restaurant Assn. surveys of restaurant trends often find health-consciousness high on the list. “I think it’s an untapped market,” she said. “I think consumers should demand healthier items.”