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California might add nutrition information to restaurant menus

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.

*Note: The lasagna will probably have more calories and more saturated fat than the caesar salad, though.

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  • marygrace
    April 19, 2007

    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 is of course true. however, when an individual is eating out at a chain restaurant and trying to cut back on the fat and calories by ordering a salad, only to find out that the salad actually had more calories than a piece of lasagna, nutrional information would help. chain restaurants can be deceptive when offering a seemingly healthy (or healthier) option, when in reality it is no healthier than anything else on the menu.

    personally, i am uncomfortable with the idea of the government making regulations like this. however, it would be really nice if chain restaurants (or any restaurant with the resource to do so) would take the initiative to help their customers and provide nutritional information. if they feel like offering that information will turn customers off to some a lot of the menu items, maybe its time for the restaurants to start revising their recipes a little bit, to keep the fat and calories of a dish at a reasonable level.

  • LTM
    April 19, 2007

    This legislation isn’t going to do anything to change peoples’ dieting habits. The only thing that can change peoples’ diet habits is themselves. When I go out to eat, it’s a treat. I don’t want to see how much fat, calories, salt and whatever else is in there. I just want to eat and enjoy.

  • miriam
    April 20, 2007

    Companies that produce a certain (high) number of products are required by law to provide their patrons with nutritional information. Foods that are packaged for purchase must contain the nutrition information on them, but foods served (at supermarket deli counters and fast food restaurants, for example) must have the information posted and provided when requested. Chemical analysis of foods to derive the nutrition information is quite costly, and as such, is only required of companies who can “afford it,” based on their sales numbers. While I agree completely that making nutrition facts available to the consumer will not stop people from choosing the high-fat, high-sodium foods they love, when combined with increased consumer education (my plug for fellow dietitians) and nationwide nutrition messages, perhaps people will make the right choice at least some of the time.

  • berlin
    March 2, 2009


  • Miranda Espinoza
    March 5, 2009

    Hello Guru, what entice you to post an article. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday

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