Food nutritionally better in restaurants with menu labelling

Author: Louise Prime

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Voluntary nutritional labelling on restaurant menus was associated with them serving food that was lower in fat and salt as well as providing customers with useful information, UK research has shown. The authors of the study*, published in PLOS ONE, suggested that mandatory menu labelling might encourage reformulation of items served by restaurants with resulting public health benefits.

The researchers, led from the University of Cambridge, noted that nutritional labelling has often been proposed as a public health intervention to improve the quality of people’s diets – yet previous research has found that consumer purchasing is little, if at all, influenced by nutritional labelling on menus. However, they wanted to see whether or not menu labelling might improve the nutritional quality of the food that restaurants serve.

They checked with the 100 most popular (in 2013) UK restaurant chains to see if they provided voluntary menu labelling. They then compared menu items served by restaurants with items from those without menu labelling, adjusting for clustering at the restaurant level. Of these 100 restaurants, 42 provided some form of energy and nutritional information online, and 13 of these voluntarily provided menu labelling.

They reported that of the total of 10,782 menu items that they identified, there was total energy and nutritional information available for 9,605 (89%) items. Items from restaurants with menu labelling had 45% less fat and 60% less salt compared with items from those without menu labelling. Although items from restaurants with menu labelling also had 32% less energy, 35% less saturated fat, 17% less carbohydrates, 52% more sugar and 48% less protein than those from restaurants without menu labelling, the results were not statistically significant. Menu labelling was not simply associated with reduced portion size.

The researchers acknowledged that because of the cross-sectional design of their study it could not determine the direction of causation – so it might be that restaurants serving menu items with less fat and salt were more likely to voluntarily menu label, although without mandatory labelling that would also apply to a longitudinal study. They also noted that results from chains might not be generalisable to the independent sector.

They commented: “This is the first study to look at differences in nutritional content of food from restaurants with and without menu labelling in the UK. It suggests that on the whole, restaurants who provide information on calories on menus also serve healthier food, in terms of fat and salt levels. As well as providing useful information for customers, mandatory menu labelling could also encourage restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their menus.”

They concluded: “Menu labelling is associated with serving items with less fat and salt in popular UK chain restaurants. Mandatory menu labelling may encourage reformulation of items served by restaurants. This could lead to public health benefits.”


*Theis DRZ, Adams J. Differences in energy and nutritional content of menu items served by popular UK chain restaurants with versus without voluntary menu labelling: A cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE 2019; 14(10): e0222773. 

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