Posted on 09/29/2009 at 09:09:32 PM by Student BloggerBy: Harini S.
I recently walked into a fast-food chain restaurant that shall remain unnamed, and upon placing my order, casually asked the server, “How many calories are in that dish?” The response was a lackadaisical “I have no idea... a LOT!” A half-eaten sandwich and a few phone calls later, I was able to determine that my meal clocked in at a reasonable 470 calories; but this exchange got me thinking about the issue of nutrition labeling of menus, which has garnered a lot of press attention in recent months.
Obesity and obesity-related diseases represent the top challenges to global public health, and there's no denying that dietary choices contribute significantly to our ever-expanding waistlines. With the increasingly demanding work schedules of two-income households, the temptation to eat out is also greater than ever before. It thus seems a no-brainer that the consumer should be presented with at least some nutrition information in restaurant settings. However, the food-service industry has managed to crank out many arguments against menu labeling, ranging from the somewhat valid (prohibitive costs of nutritional analysis) to the seemingly ludicrous (expenses of reprinting menus). But one can't help but think that the main reason for this hesitation has more to do with the fact that customers may be much less willing to order a menu item if they knew exactly how much damage it may cause to their overall health.
As nutritionists, we are constantly asking consumers to make savvier food choices. Shopping the periphery of the store, being able to read ingredient lists and nutrition labels, choosing organic varieties of certain foods -- these are just a sample of the tools that consumers are now equipped with when they walk into a grocery store. However, the moment they step into a restaurant, on average 4-5 times a week in the case of Americans, they are virtually left groping in the dark. Should one choose a salad over a burger? Should you go with the chocolate cake or the berry crumble? How big is a serving of steak, again? The choices are downright daunting for anyone trying to maintain a healthful eating pattern. This is where menu labeling comes in. It represents an excellent opportunity to provide the consumer with some crucial information, including total calorie count, to make an informed decision. Furthermore, requiring menu labeling may force restaurateurs to rethink portion sizes and ingredients, ultimately leading to healthier menu options.
This has been the idea behind some preliminary attempts to legislate menu labeling, which has gained momentum in some parts of the country, including New York City, California and Oregon. While most of this legislation is limited to fast-food or chain restaurants, the effects are already tangible. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 82% of people surveyed in New York City responded that seeing caloric information on menus has already affected their choices(1). Additionally, some food outlets, including Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds, have reformulated menu offerings in a bid to make them more nutritionally appealing.
Although I don't argue that cheeseburgers come with grim warnings and graphic images of fatty livers, I do think that providing consumers with at least a calorie-count for each dish has to become commonplace across the food service industry. While this may not make the chocolate cake vs. berry crumble dilemma any easier to settle, it will at least equip the consumer with the knowledge necessary to indulge healthfully.