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Nutritional Labeling Leads to Healthier Restaurant Choices

Fast food (DigitalVision/NIEHS.gov)

(DigitalVision/NIEHS.gov)

A study in Philadelphia shows consumers who read nutritional labels on restaurant menus purchase items lower in calories, sodium, and saturated fats than patrons of that restaurant chain overall. The results of the study by researchers at Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia’s public health department appear online in yesterday’s advance issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (paid subscription required).

Nutritional labels in restaurants are becoming required in more locations nationwide. In Philadelphia, full-service chain restaurants with more than 15 locations are required to post calorie, sodium, fat, and carbohydrate information for each item on their menus. Fast-food restaurants in Philadelphia must give calorie information on menu boards and other nutritional data on request. The national Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will, when fully implemented, require nutritional information at the point of purchase for all fast-food and full-service chain restaurants with more than 20 locations.

The researchers collected 648 customer surveys and payment receipts in 2011 at seven locations of a full-service restaurant chain. Two of the locations had nutritional information on their menus, while the other five locations did not.

The overall results indicate these restaurants are not the best place to go for sound nutrition. On average, customers ate meals with 1,800 calories, of which 1,600 calories came from the food and the remainder from beverages. For most people, about 2,000 calories a day — from all meals —  is recommended. Their selections also far exceeded recommended daily limits for sodium (2,300 milligrams) and saturated fat (20 grams).

The presence of nutritional information on the menus, however, suggests the labels at these locations are having an influence on consumers. About 8 in 10 customers at locations with nutritional labels said they saw the labels, and about a quarter (26%) said they used the labels when ordering.

Where the menus had nutritional information, consumers overall bought items with 155 fewer calories, counting both food and beverages, 224 milligrams less sodium, and 3.7 fewer grams of saturated fat, compared to customers at outlets without nutritional labels. Among those who read the nutritional labels — 26 percent — the results indicate an even greater impact: nutritional label readers bought items with on average of 400 fewer calories, 370 milligrams less sodium, and 10 fewer grams of saturated fat.

“This is the first field-based study of mandatory menu labeling laws,” says Drexel’s public health professor and lead author Amy Auchincloss in a university statement, “that found a large overall adjusted difference in calories between customers who dined at labeled restaurants when compared to unlabeled restaurants — about 155 fewer calories purchased.”

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