Menu labels impact calorie content

Restaurants with easy access to calorie info had fewer calories and less salt
22 October 2019

Interview with 

Dolly Theis, University of Cambridge




Obesity is becoming more and more of an issue, and with that, there’s been a greater push towards healthy eating. More and more restaurants these days are putting nutritional information in plain sight for us all to see. But does that make any difference? A new study in PLOS One suggests that it does. Chris Smith and Adam Murphy were joined by Cambridge University Researcher Dolly Theis, who’s been looking into this...

Dolly - We have found something different to what the evidence base has looked at so far. So a lot of the evidence is focused on whether it impacts individual choice, whether having calories on the labels changes what people choose when they eat out or order in. And what we did instead was compare the restaurants in the top 100 by sales UK chain restaurants. We compared the ones that had nutritional information on their websites versus those that had it in store and found that those that had in store had 45 percent less fat and 60 percent less salt in the food and drink they serve. So this is new evidence for the U.K. they've conducted it in the States and it indicates that menu labelling potentially incentivises restaurants to improve the healthfullness of their food. So we don't even have to make the choice.

Adam - Now that's a massive difference especially in the salt content. Why do you think it's such a stark change from one to the other?

Dolly - We aren’t able to infer, because it's a cross sectional study, which way the association goes so it could be that the restaurants that already serve healthier foods were more inclined to voluntarily introduce menu labelling in store, but the indication shows that if we are able to see what impact it might have over time it might be that other restaurants that aren't even aware of the nutritional information of their own food and drink, that given that information they can know whether where the improvements are required.

So that is the big message from our paper that it's quite bonkers to think how many restaurants don't even know what's in their own food and drink, let alone the consumers.

Chris - How were they making the patrons aware of those food constituents Dolly? Was this a traffic light system like you see on sandwiches these days or was it just the raw numbers?

Dolly - Absolutely depended restaurant to restaurant. So it was everything from having it right by the pictures, they've got the calorie information alone, and then some only had it on the menus that they give out and others have it separately.

So it's a complete mixture which also again points to the fact that the inconsistency isn't always easy for consumers to know where to even look for it in the first place. So we don't know whether you were introduced, you would have something of a more consistent process and then you can start talking about whether you introduce traffic light labelling on top of it.

Adam - Now I don't know if anyone else has the same kind of morbid curiosity as I do but we were talking about how good restaurants can be, how bad can it get?

Dolly - Well we found one item that was almost six thousand calories! It’s a burger called the Apocalypse Cow. Fantastic name but not great for health! That had almost 6000 calories.

Chris - Who was selling that?

Dolly - Do I mention names?

Chris - It's just a restaurant chain?

Dolly - Yeah. Just a restaurant chain.

Chris - And what’s in it?

Dolly - I wasn't quite in the kitchen when it was being made. That was actually a restaurant that didn't have it in store, menu labeling in store. So a consumer would technically turn up and I'm sure that they would know it probably doesn't look like the healthiest thing…

Chris - I know that around the time that he died, Elvis is alleged to have been eating roughly the number of calories that would have.

Dolly - On the loo.

Chris - Well admittedly he did die on the loo. But when you realize he was eating roughly the number of calories that would have sustained an African elephant each day I think the intake was in the order of 21,000 calories a day. It's probably not far off a couple of those burgers!

Dolly - Exactly and that's the other thing is that we found so many items! That was an extreme example but there are so many items that are just over an entire adult's recommended daily amount. You know one menu item is just bonkers to think that that is the norm now. So it's not only about individuals being aware of it but it's the restaurants themselves, if they don't even have that information how you're going to target interventions?

Adam - So speaking of interventions, what recommendations do you have now going forward?

Dolly - So the government conducted a consultation at the end of last year on menu labeling and they had actually already committed to introducing it. So the consultation was much more about the detail of how they would introduce it.

And we are still, coming up to a year, waiting for a decision to be made. So I think first thing would be great to hear a decision and to understand what the government's thoughts are on this issue and perhaps a good place to start is exactly where we looked with the top 100 chain companies. Because there have been some issues around the capacity smaller companies have to introduce menu labeling and the cost on that. So yes we would like a response from the government.

Adam - Will making restaurants do this actually do anything to change behaviour of people going into those restaurants?

Dolly - We didn't look at this in our own study, so the evidence is pretty weak on the impact on individual choice, but potentially that might change if it's mandated so we have to wait and see.


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