Mixed results from Philadelphia’s Menu Labelling Research Studies

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is one of the only cities we know of that requires some restaurant chains to list sodium content on their menus. So it goes without saying that we were eagerly awaiting the results of their menu labelling research.

This week, the results were published in two different journals, and the results are mixed. In a nutshell, the law seems to be making more of an impact on customers in full service restaurants where printed menus include the amounts of calories, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and carbohydrates for each menu item. In fast food restaurants, where only calories are posted on the menu board, customers were less likely to see and use the information to make a healthier choice.

sit down restaurant menu

Here are a few interesting highlights of the research studies:

In full service restaurants,

– 76% of customers saw the nutrition information on the menu and 34% of them reported that the nutrition info influenced their ordering decisions.

– Those who used the nutrition information chose meals with 400 fewer calories and 370 mg less sodium.

– 26% of all customers reported using the nutrition information when deciding what to order.

– Overall, customers at labeled restaurants purchased 151 fewer calories and 224 mg less sodium compared to customers at non-labeled restaurants.

– Calorie and sodium levels in full service restaurant meals remain excessively high. Amongst those who used the nutrition information in deciding what to order, the average amount of calories purchased was still over 1200 with nearly 2800 mg of sodium. (Those who did not use the nutrition information purchased meals with over 1700 calories and over 3300 mg of sodium!)

In fast food restaurants,

– 38% of customers saw the calorie information on the menu.

– 10% of customers reported buying fewer calories as a result of seeing the calorie information.

– 3% of customers reported buying more calories as a result of seeing calorie information.

– the average number of calories purchased did not significantly change from the time before menu labelling went into effect (959 calories vs. 904 calories – similar to the calorie levels purchased in the comparison city of Baltimore where there is no menu labelling law).

The research studies also confirmed that females, those with more education and those with higher incomes were most likely to use menu labelling information. These are some of the factors that may be responsible for the mixed results.

People line up to buy food at a fast food restaurant in Harlem in New York

The fact that only 38% of the fast food customers noticed the calorie labelling information is both surprising and disappointing, but it tells us two things: Firstly, it is important to increase public awareness of menu labelling. The author notes that in Philadelphia, the menu labelling law did not get much media or public attention. (Here’s where programs like Savvy Diner can play a big role!)

Secondly, the menu labelling information needs to be prominently displayed so that it is apparent to people from the ordering line. The design of the menu board is hugely important. Indeed, there was a 15% difference between customers who noticed the calorie information at the two chains participating in the fast food restaurant study. While 49% of the Burger King customers noticed the calorie postings, only 34% of the McDonald’s customers noticed it.

The factors that get customers to see and use menu labelling in different types of restaurants is sure to be an area of further study.

 

 

 

Craving a Hot Lunch on a Chilly Autumn Day?

When the weather turns colder, many of us crave hot meals to warm our bodies and lift our spirits. Just the thought of a steaming plate of pasta, a saucy rice bowl or a spicy curry brings feelings of warmth and comfort during these chilly autumn days.

But we need to be aware that these mouthwatering comfort meals are often laden with calories and sodium, partly owing to their typically large portion sizes and the generous amount of sauce.

Looking at the nutritional information for one popular sit down restaurant chain, the average menu item in the “Pastas and Bowls” section contains around 1170 calories and 2325 mg of sodium. That’s more than half the calories many adults need in a whole day, and more sodium than anyone should eat in an entire day. And those numbers don’t include any appetizer, bread, beverage or dessert.

At this particular chain, the worst offender in this category is a chicken rigatoni dish which has almost 1400 calories and over 3200 mg of sodium.

chicken_rigatoni

The lowest calorie option is a Thai red curry dish that has just over 900 calories, but it still has nearly a day’s worth of sodium (almost 1400 mg).

redThaicurry

By the way, these numbers are fairly typical. We’ve reported previously that this is what a Nutrition Facts table would look like for the average sit down restaurant meal in Canada, which includes an appetizer and a main:

NFT_AverageMeal

So what’s a chilly Torontonian turned Savvy Diner to do? First of all, ask to see the nutritional information so that you can make an informed decision. Then, decide how much you want to eat, taking into consideration the rest of the meals and snacks you’ll have for the day and the amount of physical activity you’ve got planned.

If we had this information upfront, we’d try our hardest to eat only half and take half to go, for tomorrow’s lunch.

Stay Warm,

The Savvy Diner Team

leaderboard

Here’s our Advice to the Ontario Minister of Health…What’s Yours?

On October 9th, Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews announced that the government will be introducing legislation this winter which will require large chain restaurants in the province to post calorie and other nutritional information on restaurant menus.

We know that Savvy Diners in Toronto are really interested in seeing nutritional information, especially calorie and sodium values, on restaurants menus.

And there are a lot of good reasons why including sodium in the menu labelling rules would make sense. But so far, the Ministry of Health has not committed to including sodium since the emphasis has been on preventing childhood obesity, and thus on calories.

Here is an infographic that Toronto Public Health submitted to the Health Minister (we also submitted our other recommendations for provincial menu labelling legislation).

Why the Province Should Mandate Sodium Values on Menus Why the Province Should Mandate Sodium Values on Menus Page 2

There is only one day left for you to share YOUR opinions with the Health Minister. Take 10 minutes to complete the survey before the deadline of November 15th (Note: the first part of the survey asks about your views on reducing the marketing of foods and beverages aimed at children).

 

Hypertension Canada Shakes Up Sodium Guidelines

salt

You may have heard the news that Hypertension Canada, a not-for-profit agency dedicated to the prevention and control of high blood pressure, is recommending that the daily sodium intake level be raised 2000 mg per day. Apparently, a task force of blood pressure experts reviewed the latest evidence and proposed the change after significant debate.

It is yet to be seen whether Hypertension Canada’s recommendation will become official federal government policy in Canada and the U.S. through a revision to the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes which still tell healthy middle aged adults aged to aim for 1500 mg of sodium per day.

In case anyone is confusing this updated recommendation with a free pass to up their sodium intake… not so fast. The average Canadian already consumes 3400 mg per day, which is 1.5 times this new sodium target. That’s the amount of sodium in seven cheeseburgers!

cheeseburgers

The reality is that most Canadians are already overdoing it on salt, so reducing our intakes to 2000 mg per day would actually be a big improvement. Plus, Hypertension Canada’s recommendation for the daily sodium limit (2300 mg) didn’t change. Too much sodium will still increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, a precursor to a range of health conditions.

With the average sit-down restaurant meal in Canada having nearly 2300 mg of sodium in it, there’s no question that menu labelling could help us make better choices when dining out. We’ve heard that calories will soon be required on Ontario menus, but the province is completing consultations before deciding whether other nutrition numbers will be needed as well.

Savvy Diners can be assured that we are working hard to push for sodium to be included in the proposed legislation. And now… you can tell the Minister of Health (through an online public survey) how you feel about seeing calorie and sodium information on restaurant menus too. We hope you’ll take the time to share your thoughts on being a Savvy Diner!

Reading the Fine Print

fries

It’s certainly encouraging to see the fast food industry recognize the demand for healthier options, but the claims made about these new fries are confusing.

Although advertised as having 30% fewer calories, in the fine print you’ll see this is the difference when these fries are compared to a competitor’s spuds. Swapping this option for the regular, in-house fries actually provides 20% fewer calories.

Only menu labelling would tell diners that substitution means a savings of 80 calories & 200 mg sodium for a medium order (or a savings of 70 calories and 180 mg sodium for a comparably sized small US order). Savvy Diners want greater transparency – time for this information to be on the menu!