Menu labeling: The numbers help some make more healthful choices

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When calories and fat are in diners’ faces, do they make more healthful choices? Yes and no, according to a new study that shows restaurant menu labeling may help some, but not all, restaurant patrons choose dishes lower in fat and calories.

Six full-service, casual restaurants in Pierce County, Wash., participated in the study, adding nutritional information to their menus for a month. Researchers from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department noted what diners ordered for a month before the labeling and a month after to see if listing calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates made any difference in what patrons ordered for lunch and dinner entrees. During the labeling period, diners were also given a brief questionnaire asking if they noticed the nutritional information, how well they understood the numbers and if they ordered differently because of the information.


About 16,000 entrees were purchased during the study period. During the menu-labeling period, entrees ordered had about 15 fewer calories, 1.5 fewer grams of fat and 45 fewer milligrams of sodium compared with the pre-labeling period. Carbohydrate content of the entrees did not differ before and after labeling.

The questionnaire offered more information: 71% of patrons noticed the nutritional information, and of those 80% looked at the key to understand what the numbers meant. The vast majority (96%) who looked at the key felt they understood it well enough to point out more healthful items. But only 59% of those who saw and comprehended the information made a decision based on it.

Also, only 20% of diners chose a lower calorie entree because of the nutritional information. Researchers calculated that for every 100 entrees purchased when nutritional labeling was in place, only 20 people ordered ones lower in calories. To account for the decrease of 1,500 calories total, each of those people ordered about 75 fewer calories than before menu labeling appeared.

‘This estimate suggests,’ wrote the authors, ‘that menu labeling could have a significant impact on meals ordered by some individuals.’

The findings echo those in other similar papers that found menu labeling had an effect on some diners. The effect of menu labeling, which began in California last year, was looked at more in-depth in this story in Health. Restaurant menu labeling is also part of the new healthcare bill.

The study, published online recently in the American Journal of Public Health, also points out that it can be difficult to determine calories and fat from a verbal description alone. Four of the six restaurants in the study featured Reuben sandwiches with wide variations in calories (480 to 1,730), fat (19 to 83 grams), sodium (1,770 to 4,990 grams) and carbs (39 to 182 grams), with the differences attributed to ingredients, side dishes, and portion size.

— Jeannine Stein