Research shows menus that list calories offer more nutritional meals

The University of Cambridge looked at the top 100 restaurant chains in the UK to  see the impact of providing this information.

18 October 2019
image credit: Getty Images

It’s a measure that has been floated by the UK government and now research out of Cambridge University backs mandatory menu labelling, finding it could encourage restaurants to produce healthier options by prompting chefs to reformulate or introduce new items.

Researchers from Cambridge’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) looked at the energy and nutritional information on the websites of the 100 most popular UK restaurant chains.

Of these, 42 provided some form of energy and nutritional information online, but only 14 provided menu labelling in stores. Twelve of the 14 restaurants that provided voluntary menu labelling were in the top 50 restaurants by sales.

It revealed that items from restaurants with in-store menu labelling had on average 45% less fat and 60% less salt than items from other restaurants.

Specifically, pizzas contained 39% less sugar and 64% less salt, while sandwiches had 39% less sugar, 23% less protein and 27% less salt.

“This is the first study to look at differences in nutritional content of food from restaurants with and without menu labelling in the UK,” said Dolly Theis from CEDAR. “It suggests that on the whole, restaurants that 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.”

In good news, across all menu categories at least three quarters of individual menu items were below the daily maximum recommended intake for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

However, some individual items contained more than twice the daily recommended amount for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt. In one case, an individual dish contained 5,961Kcal – almost three times the daily recommended maximum for an average adult woman.

“More than a quarter of UK adults eat meals out at least once a week, so such large or nutritionally imbalanced portions could contribute to poor dietary intake at a population level,” added researcher Dr Jean Adams.

The lay of the land

Mandatory menu labelling for large restaurant chains was introduced in the US in May 2018. In the UK, the government included voluntary menu labelling in its Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011.

A proposal for compulsory menu labelling was included in last year’s Childhood Obesity Plan and a public consultation closed last December, but no announcement on a final policy has been made so far. The Treasury did indicate, however, that independent cafes and restaurants should be exempt from such a policy.

The UK government’s outgoing chief medical officer Sally Davies has also suggested a calorie cap on food served by restaurants in a recent report.

The campaign group Obesity Health Alliance welcomed the study. “We already know that calorie labelling on menus can prompt people towards the healthier options, now this study shows that is also leads to outlets providing healthier menus as a whole,” said Caroline Cerny from the Alliance. “We all have the right to know what is in the food we eat, whether we buy it in the supermarket or in a restaurant. Mandatory calorie labelling would make this happen and we now need the Government to act swiftly to bring this policy in.”

But the Federation of Small Businesses was cautious about the measure. “We welcome all efforts that are being made to tackle childhood obesity and create a healthier nation,” the organisation said. “But when it comes to menus, small businesses will need time and help to digest the costs and potential bureaucracy that mandatory calorie counts would create.”

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