Health officials in New York City won a huge victory this week in the fight against the epidemic of childhood obesity.
A federal judge upheld a proposed New York City regulation which will require some chain restaurants to post calories on menus.
The Judge ruled, “It seems reasonable to expect that some consumers will use the information disclosed … to select lower calorie meals … and these choices will lead to a lower incidence of obesity.”
To their credit, some outlets, including Starbucks and Chipotle, have already started to post calorie information — and it’s time for more to do the same.
In my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat, we wrote for the reasons we favor such legislation. Here’s an excerpt from the section “It’s time to strengthen food labeling in fast-food restaurants:”
Unfortunately the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 explicitly exempted restaurants. Under current law, restaurants must make nutrition information available only when they make a health or nutrient-content claim for a food or meal.
If menu board claims that a sandwich is low-fat, for example,the restaurant is required to have available, somewhere in the store, information about the fat content of that sandwich.
Unlike for processed foods, whose nutrition information must be determined by laboratory analysis, nutrition information regarding restaurant claims may be determined from nutrient data bases, cookbooks, or “other reasonable basis.”
Some restaurants, particularly fast-food chains, provide brochures or posters with nutrition information regarding their menu items. Several fast-food chains, however, provided in-store nutrition information only after state attorneys general and consumer groups applied some pressure.
In 1986 state attorneys general from several states, including Texas, New York, and California, negotiated an agreement with McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, KFC, and Wendy’s, to provide nutrition and ingredient information in their restaurants.
We see a number of problems with the current voluntary system for providing nutrition information in chain restaurants. In fact, most chain restaurants do not provide such information.
A 1997 survey of the largest chain restaurants found that two-thirds (65 percent) do not provide customers with any nutrition information (including on menus, menu boards, pamphlets, table tents, or posters).
And often those that do provide the information do so in large, complicated tables listing everything from protein and cholesterol to iron and vitamin A.
These tables can be hard to use because they present an overwhelming amount of information in small print for every food item.
And not many busy customers want to lose their place in line to try to interpret a poster chock-full of small print.
Worst of all, as time and experience have proved, it is unlikely that a voluntary system will prompt many more restaurants to provide nutrition information.
Two-thirds of the largest chain restaurants believe they do not have a responsibility to provide nutrition labeling.
This is unfortunate, for one older study, done in a cafeteria setting, showed that posting signs indicating the calorie content of available foods signiﬁcantly decreased the number of calories purchased.
An unpublished evaluation of a menu labeling program at four northwestern table-service restaurants also found that calorie labeling on menus led to entrée selections lower in calories.
We believe Congress and state or local legislatures should require food-service chains with ten or more units to list the calorie, saturated and trans fat (combined), and sodium contents of standard menu items.
Where space is limited, restaurants that use menu boards should be required to provide at least calorie information next to each item on their boards.
We also believe that labeling should be required for foods and beverages sold “to go”at food retailers such as cookie counters in shopping malls, vending machines, drive-through windows, and convenience stores.
Further, nutrition information should be required to be listed as prominently as price and other key menu information.
By the way, The Institute of Medicine joins us in urging restaurants to provide calorie content and other nutrition information.