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Chain Restaurants Still Serving High Calorie, Sodium Meals

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Public health researchers at University of California in Davis and Rand Corporation in Santa Monica found restaurant chains in the U.S. continue to serve meals high in calories and sodium, despite requirements to post nutritional data about their menus. UC-Davis’s Helen Wu and Rand economist Roland Sturm published their findings yesterday online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (paid subscription required).

Wu, an analyst with UC-Davis’s Institute for Population Health Improvement, and Sturm sampled the online menus of 213 chains, both fast-food outlets and casual sit-down restaurants, between the spring of 2010 and spring of 2011. The researchers chose that period because section 4205 of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (health care reform law) requires restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post nutritional information about their menu items. The Food and Drug Administration in August 2010 published non-binding guidance on complying with this provision.

In a study published last year, the authors found most entrée items at U.S. chain restaurants in 2009 exceeded USDA’s calorie, fat, and sodium guidelines, as did appetizer and children’s menu items. The new study shows a small reduction in sodium content among entrée items with the highest sodium levels, but on average most chain restaurant entrées still exceed recommended limits.

The researchers found the average entrée at chain restaurants in 2010 contained 670 calories and remained at 670 calories one year later. Sodium levels only dropped from 1,515 milligrams per entrée in 2010 to 1,500 milligrams one year later.

One improvement noted were fewer calories in children’s items at fast food restaurants. But the researchers also found the number of restaurants that made lower calorie and sodium options available were almost matched by chains that offered items that increased calorie and sodium content.

“Consumers need to be aware,” says Wu in a university statement, “that when they step into a restaurant, they are playing a high-stakes game with their health by making dietary choices from menus that are loaded with high-calorie, high-sodium options. This is a game that health-conscious consumers have a very low chance of winning, given the set of menu offerings available in U.S. chain restaurants today.”

A Gallup survey in July 2013, however, suggests U.S. consumers overall are not too concerned about nutritional information in restaurants. Less than half (43%) of those sampled say they pay “a great deal” or “fair amount” of attention to nutritional information in restaurants, compared to a majority (55%) paying little or no attention. Women and college-educated consumers were more likely to take note of restaurants’ nutrional information.

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