October 8, 2012 by blistenfelt
Eating out is a luxury for the graduate student, but a regular occurrence for much of the American population. Menu labeling has emerged as a way to make this normal part of life a little healthier for the average person. But what is healthier? And does menu labeling actually influence food decisions?
These are two of the many questions regarding mandatory menu labeling at chain restaurants. Many studies (mostly observational) have attempted to determine the effects of menu labeling. Unfortunately, the studies conducted thus far have been inconclusive with some showing a small decrease in caloric consumption, others show no change, and a few even show that calorie consumption increased after restaurants added nutrition labels to their menus. Clearly, menu labeling still has a ways to go before it will be considered an evidence-based recommendation for decreasing caloric intake of foods eaten away from the home.
By requiring chain restaurants to post nutritional information on the menu, the federal government was hoping to help consumers make a “better” choice at mealtime. There are numerous issues with this ideal, however. Because of my graduate student status, I may not eat out often, but I don’t recall seeing many truly healthy alternatives on most chain or fast-food menus. The healthfulness of a food is based on more than just calorie count, a fact that is seemingly overlooked by this regulation. An order of fries is not a “better” choice than a hamburger because it contains fewer calories. While this may seem like common sense, this logic is not discernible from the menu. Price, taste, and value are also important considerations when choosing both where to eat and what to eat. Decreasing the cost of healthy items, increasing the cost of less healthy items, and improving the menu name, appearance, and taste of healthy items would go a long way to encouraging customers to order the healthier menu options.
Another issue for menu labeling is evaluating what are people really learning from this. Nutrition labels require the consumer to be able to read and interpret the information presented, a skill that is beyond the literacy level of much of our nation. Beyond basic literacy, the consumer must be able to approximate how many calories they should eat in a day as well as the number of calories in the other foods eaten throughout the day. This is not something that people are very good at, hence the whole reason that menu labeling became required. Finally, even for those select individuals who can read and interpret nutrition labels and assess their calorie needs and consumption, this knowledge has less impact on the quality of their food choices and diets away from home.
Do I have any good news about mandatory menu labeling? Possibly. If consumer awareness increases as a result of nutrition labels at chain restaurants, this would be a positive outcome. However, consumer awareness is not enough. Consumers must also change their purchasing habits to truly healthier options in order for mandatory labeling to be considered a public health success. If consumer awareness increases and purchasing habits change, then restaurants should alter their menus to reflect this shift. Consumer advocacy would also be highly beneficial to this outcome.
In many ways, mandatory nutrition labeling on restaurant menus is a step back for nutrition and public health. Once again, the focus is on a single component of nutrition (calories) and the importance of everything else seems trivial. Instead of just talking about calories, the conversation needs to include the importance of vitamins, minerals, water… The foods that are rich in these nutrition components truly are better for the consumer – less processed, more plant-based foods.