It’s easy to pick out healthy items on a restaurant menu, right?
A quick quiz conducted by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that 68% of surveyed Californians couldn’t pick out the low calorie, low salt, high fat or high calorie items from a list of dishes on the menus at Denny’s, Chili’s, McDonald’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain restaurants. 27% only got one of the four quiz questions correct. Not a single person answered all four correctly.
Obviously all of the questions were sticking points with consumers, but even the director of the CCPHA said that “You’d have a better chance at choosing a healthy option by throwing a dart at the menu board” because it can be so unintuitive. One question that asked people to identify whether lasagna or Caesar salad (at the Macaroni Grill) was lower in fat. Most people picked the salad, but the lower fat item was actually the lasagna*.
Even more interesting than the results of the quiz is the fact that 84% of participants said that they “would support a law requiring that restaurants post nutrition information on menus,” like a senate bill being introduced next week does. Following the example set earlier this year by New York City, the law, if passed, would “require restaurant chains with 10 or more locations to provide nutritional information for all standard items listed on the menu. The information would include calories, grams of saturated fat, trans fat, grams of carbohydrates and milligrams of sodium.” Fast food restaurants would be required to list calories next to the names of items on menu boards.
The disconnect between the quiz results and the proposed law is that, despite the fact that consumers might support such a bill, it doesn’t necessarily mean that seeing the fat/calorie content of a restaurant item would discourage people from making unhealthy choices. The nutritional information on packaged products doesn’t necessarily keep people from buying – and eating – candy bars or other unhealthy snacks and food items, does it? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that a Venti Mocha Frappuccino with Whipped Cream is less healthy than a Tall Latte, but that doesn’t stop people from ordering them.
This isn’t to say that the law may not be a good idea. There are plenty of people who would love to get hard numbers about the food they’re eating. But public health advocates seem to imply that once the numbers are there in plain view, consumers will change their eating habits and always seek out the healthier item when given a choice, and that is a mindset that is a little overly optimistic.