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Menu info helps diners choose healthier lunches

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

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Providing diners in restaurants with more information on the calorie content of items on the menu encourages them to consume less energy – but only in certain circumstances, shows research published on bmj.com.

Researchers looked at changes in diners’ eating patterns after 2008, when the law changed in New York to compel fast food chain restaurants (with at least 15 branches nationwide) to include calorie information on their menus. A similar, voluntary system will soon start in England.

The conducted lunchtime interviews with 7309 adult customers in 168 restaurants (from the top 11 chains) in New York City in spring 2007; and in spring 2009 interviewed 8489 customers at the same locations.

They assessed the energy content of individual purchases, based on customers’ till receipts and on calorie information provided for all items in menus.

Overall, diners’ mean number of calories per purchase did not change after the introduction of more informative menus.

However, this masked a significant reduction in ‘mean energy per purchase’ for certain restaurant chains (McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain and KFC) – and even a large increase for customers of the Subway chain (from a mean of 749kcal to 882kcal).

In the 2009 interviews, 15% of customers said that they used the calorie information when making their choices from the menu, and these people purchased meals with 106kcal less energy on average than customers who did not see or use the information.

Beatrice Brooke, policy manager at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The New York research shows us just how valuable calorie labelling in fast food restaurants can be, helping people eat as many as 100 fewer calories. Menu calorie counts are a great first step towards providing easily accessible information in restaurants about a whole range of nutrients, including saturated fat, sugar and salt.

“One in six meals in the UK is eaten away from home so it’s essential we know what’s in the food we’re buying in restaurants and cafes … Fast food retailers in the UK must take action to help diners make informed choices about the meals they buy.”

Another study, published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that eating location and food source had a significant impact on daily energy intake for US children.

The authors reported that children’s daily energy intake rose by 179kcal from 1977 to 2006 and that foods prepared away from home, including fast food eaten at home and store-prepared food eaten away from home, are fuelling this increase. Over the study period, the proportion of total calories eaten away from home rose from 23.4% to 33.9%.

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