Menu nutritional info: does it help you make healthy choices?

November 8, 2010 by  

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How often do you read the nutritional info on a food package? Does the info influence your decision to buy? It does for me.

But what about food in restaurants? Would info on fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt content help customers make the right healthy choices?

As part of the US health reform bill, fast food chains may be required to provide nutritional info on their menu boards. This measure is just one of the many strategies aimed to fight the increasing prevalence of obesity and cardiovascular disease in the US.

When it comes to health strategies, New York City is at the forefront, from transfat elimination to salt reduction in restaurant food. It is also one of the first cities to require menu-label regulation.

But many are skeptical whether nutritional info labeling really helps people make wise choices. Researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital conducted a study to gauge the effect of this strategy. They looked at consumer choices in King County, WA, a city requiring menu labeling. A survey was conducted before and after the regulation. San Diego, CA, where menu labeling is not required, served as comparator city.

Families in both cities were given $10 gift card to be used in a restaurant of their choice. They are asked to keep the food receipt and answer a questionnaire.

The results showed the following subtle but still discernible trends:

  • More parents noticed nutrition labels in King Country
  • Those who noticed the labels tended to act accordingly and purchased lower-calorie meals for their children.
  • Shared parent-child decision increased after labeling regulation was in place; preregulation survey indicated choices were frequently made by children only.

According to lead author Dr Pooja Tandon:

“Parental awareness of nutrition did seem to have an impact on what parents bought for their children, especially if their children were overweight. And in parents who reported seeing nutrition information [for the first time], the number of children’s calories went down.”

Other striking information that came out from the findings is:

A fourth of the children in the study were overweight and so were two-thirds of the parents. Based on body mass index (BMI), children and parents who had BMIs over 25 (indicating overweight) were ”more likely to select lower-calorie menu items after the menu-labeling regulation went into place, particularly those who said they noticed the nutritional information for the first time in the postregulation period—a finding not seen among normal-weight parents and children.”

The study results are giving health experts lots to think about. It indicates that food labeling regulation does work but whether this is enough to stop increasing obesity rates is not clear.

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