Thursday, April 16, 2009

What's On The Menu?

A muffin that tips the scales at 600 calories. A salad that tops 1200. And a bowl of pasta that soars to over 2000 – a day’s worth of calories. Since New York City enacted its restaurant labeling legislation earlier this year, city goers’ eyes (and stomachs) have bulged at the numbers that now greet them on menu boards at their favorite chain eateries. As cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle rush to follow suit, the question remains: Is menu labeling the solution to America’s skyrocketing obesity epidemic?

Efforts to fight overweight and obesity – conditions that are associated with an increased risk for a number of cancers –are almost as numerous as the factors that contribute to these conditions. But as experts continue to debate the most effective ways to influence American’s diet and lifestyle choices, the nation’s waistline is growing larger. With over two-thirds of the country currently overweight or obese, time is running out.

Enter the policymakers. While several city governments have passed legislation requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information on menu boards, New York City’s ordinance was the first. According to the ruling, chain restaurants (including fast food chains) with 15 or more national franchises are required to post calorie information on menus, displayed in the same font and format as the name and price of food items. Fines up to $2000 can be levied for noncompliance.

Two viewpoints
Critics of the law argue that most restaurant chains already make nutrition information available. Posting it on menus, they argue, would mean added cost for the restaurants and would ultimately have little effect on purchase habits.

But proponents of the legislation say that in order to make informed decisions, consumers need the information at the time of purchase, something the restaurant’s web sites, brochures or in-store kiosks cannot provide.

Supporters of the legislation also refute claims that the law will place an unnecessary financial burden on the restaurant industry. Changing menus is a one-time cost, they point out, noting that labeling only applies to standard menu items, not specials. They also stress that the ordinance does not affect cash-strapped mom-and-pop operations, only chains.

A look at the evidence
Preliminary data that look at the effect of menu labeling on food purchasing was recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. According to the research, consumers who saw calorie information prominently displayed at the point of purchase at a national sandwich franchise consumed an average of 50 fewer calories per meal than those who did not see the calorie counts. While that may sound like a nominal figure, saving 50 calories per day would translate to a five-pound weight loss over the course of a year.

But that’s not the whole story. There has also been research suggesting that consumers who feel they are eating healthfully and saving calories may be more likely to splurge on high calorie treats to reward themselves. It will take scientists time to collect more data that will put these and other theories to the test.

The historical perspective
Though some scoff at the idea of legislators playing a role in the food choices we make on a daily basis, it is not the first time that the government has intervened. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1994 required food manufacturers to include nutrition information on nearly all packaged foods. Today, as scanning the nutrition labels on everything from cereal boxes to margarine tubs has become second nature, it is hard to remember that time when consumers were not armed with this information.

The current regulations that have passed in several major US cities all face mounting litigation by the restaurant industry. As the story continues to unfold – and the issue faces increasing debate among federal lawmakers – we as a nation must decide how proactive we wish to be in battling obesity.

It’s still not known whether providing people with more nutritional information will have a significant effect on the daily food choices they make. But what this legislation truly advocates is giving individuals easier access to more information – information they can choose to use as they see fit, or ignore.

And from a strictly historical point of view, getting people greater access to information allows them to make better choices and take a more central role in their own health and wellbeing.
Those of us in areas without menu labeling legislation need not be completely in the dark when eating out. Check out AICR’s Guide to Healthy Dining Out, a helpful brochure filled with tips for choosing healthful meal options away from home.

Source: The American Institute of Cancer Research