What are the effects of calorie labels in restaurants?

A new study investigates the calorie content of food in restaurant chains following the implementation of calorie labels on menus.

In 2018, the United States government began enforcing a policy requiring major restaurant chains to include calorie labels on their menus. This includes any restaurant chain with more than 19 locations in the country, and the goal of this policy is to increase public awareness and transparency for consumers.1

Calories refer to the amount of energy in the food we eat, and this energy is used to fuel daily activities as well as the biochemical processes that support the body. The number of calories burned varies greatly from individual to individual and depends on various factors, such as activity level, muscle mass, body weight, age, gender, etc. Calories are essential for living; however, regularly consuming more calories than the body needs can lead to weight gain.

Every individual is different, and while some people find counting calories unproductive or burdensome, others may find tracking their daily calorie intake helpful for their well-being. This policy may benefit some people who want to know this information, and ultimately it may help consumers make informed choices.

Some researchers also believe that this increased level of transparency could encourage restaurants to be mindful of the calorie content of their dishes and even start using low-calorie ingredients to appeal to some consumers. However, there is a lack of research on the actual effects of this policy since its implementation in 2018.

Researchers at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, conducted a study to assess potential changes in the nutritional value of menu items following the implementation of calorie labels in restaurants.1 The results were analyzed and the final study was published in JAMA network open.

The study surveyed 59 major restaurant chains and compared their menu items from two different time periods: 2012-2017 and 2018-2019. The first period was intended to represent restaurant menu items prior to the implementation of the policy in 2018, and the latter period was intended to represent them after the policy was implemented. Some menu items were excluded, such as those sold before 2018 where the calorie count could not be reasonably calculated.

The remaining menu items were then sorted into a variety of different categories using MenuStat’s categorization system to determine menu item type, and these categories included appetizers, appetizers, side dishes and others. For each type of menu item, the average calorie content was compared between the two time periods to determine if there were any significant changes.

The study found that items available before 2018 had no significant changes in average calorie count after the policy was implemented. However, items introduced after 2018 had, on average, lower calorie contents than those introduced before 2018.1

The results of this study could potentially suggest that restaurant items introduced after 2018 may, on average, have lower calorie content than those introduced before 2018; however, further research is needed to confirm this idea. Additionally, more research is needed to determine whether these changes were the result of politics or other social factors.

The references

  1. Grummon, AH, Petimar, J., Soto, MJ, et al (2021, December 30). Changes in the calorie content of menu items in large restaurant chains after the implementation of calorie labels. Open JAMA Network 4(12):e2141353. Doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.41353
  2. MenuStat (2022). MenuStat: Interactive restaurant nutrition database. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: United States. Retrieved January 6, 2022 from http://menustat.org/#/home

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