Is Menu Labeling The Answer?

As we see rates of obesity and chronic diseases continue to grow, we also see more proposals for legislation over food.  The recent menu labeling laws are based on the assumption that “unhealthy” food choices stem from a lack of knowledge.  For the most part, we in the U.S. have information coming out of our ears.  So, will putting nutrition data on the menu result in healthier ordering on the part of the consumer?  Has it changed your meal choices?


Transcript for Is Menu Labeling The Answer?

Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking.  I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann.  I recently received an email from a listener asking my opinion on food menu labeling laws.  The listener also inquired specifically about the most important nutrient information a consumer should notice when making a menu selection and how these restaurant changes will benefit consumers.

Here is my response:


What are the most important nutrient information a consumer should notice when making a menu selection?

I think the most important nutrients to pay attention to when eating out at restaurant are:

  1. Total Calories in the dish
  2. Total Fat, Saturated Fat,
  3. Sugar
  4. Fiber
  5. Total or Net Carbohydrates (for people with Diabetes)


The reason I put Calories first is because this is the main contributor to the issue of weight gain from eating out too often.  Yes, the lack of fiber is also an issue in satiety and satiation, but the main factor is the Caloric density of restaurant/fast-food meals.  People need to be aware of how many Calories they will be consuming if they eat the entire salad/entree/dessert/etc.

Though I don’t necessarily promote a low-fat diet across the board, it is better to eat naturally occurring plant fats (i.e. olives/olive oil, nuts/seeds, avocado, etc.) rather than animal fats and added fats.  It is important to choose foods with little added fat (in other words, keep the cooking oil to a minimum) and ones low in saturated fat (which is predominant in animal products like high-fat meat cuts and full-fat dairy: milk, cream, butter, and cheese).  Since saturated fat appears to be a prime suspect in raising total and LDL cholesterol, as well as contributing to atherosclerosis and heart disease in general, this should be limited.

Sugar is popping up in all sorts of packaged and pre-made foods, and in places we (or the consumer) wouldn’t ordinarily expect.  Salad dressings, sauces, marinades, glazes, and other hidden sources of sugar are often overlooked.  Sugar is a significant source of Calories, but is a nutrient-poor food, making it something to limit or watch out for.

Total fiber is a good stat to know because it shows whether the grain product in the dish is whole or refined.  Often restaurants use “fancy” and misleading terms like “multigrain, 9-grain, wheat…”, and most think that this means the dish is “healthy” and fiber-containing when that is often not the case.  The first ingredient in these products is usually enriched wheat (read “white”) flour.  We want to be choosing fiber for its many benefits not only to curb our Caloric intake, but also to help lower our cholesterol (soluble) and promote a healthy colon (insoluble).

Lastly, people with Diabetes who are counting Carbohydrates need to know how many exchanges (equivalent to 15g of carbs) are in the meal, especially if they are taking insulin.  Knowing the amount of carbohydrate can also be helpful for the general population in assessing whether this is a balanced meal, or if it is just a heavy load of carbs with little protein.


How do you think these restaurant changes will benefit consumers?

Menu labeling will benefit consumers if:

  • The labeling is clear and accessible
  • Consumers read the label
  • Consumers care and make healthier choices

In other words, just by putting nutrient information on the menu doesn’t translate into consumers choosing healthier meals.  The psychology of what, when, and how people eat is very complex, and to think that giving people more knowledge will solve all our problems of excessive intake is foolish.  For the most part, we do not have a knowledge deficit in this country.  We need to recognize the complexity of making choices about what to eat and also about the development or alteration of eating patterns.  Emotional, physiological, social, and religious factors all come in to play.

The best thing menu labeling can do is bring awareness to the consumers of how many Calories, grams of fat, and other nutrient components are in their food.  They will hopefully eat out less often, and when they do go out to eat, they can choose whether or not they want to let the information affect their food intake on that occasion.  The label allows consumers to make an “educated” decision.

I should also add that the label will only help if it is accurate.  There have been more and more cases reported when the printed nutritional information is off the mark and an analysis of the dish’s ingredients show that there are many more calories or grams of fat than the menu says.  There may be several reasons for this—one being that there is a lack of standardization for serving or portion sizes or a disconnect between the food that was analyzed and the food that is actually served.


Any additional comments?

I also want to reinforce the fact that menu labeling, and other methods of legislation, have the potential to be helpful, but in trying to positively impact people’s food and exercise behaviors, we have to step back and look at the whole picture.  Why is this person eating out so much? Do they know how to cook? Why is convenience so important to them? What is their work schedule like? What foods did they grow up eating? What does “eating out” mean for them or do for them? Do they live alone and eat out for socialization? Do they even care about their cholesterol levels or the possibility of having a heart condition in the future? Is the person depressed or an emotional eater?  I really could go on and on.  This goes to show that knowledge about the nutritional value of our food is not always the forefront concern of consumers and therefore providing this information may not have the widespread impact that is desired.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode on menu labeling.  If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear them! Thanks again for listening and I’ll see you next time!

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There are 7 comments

  1. Bird

    Really great article! Menu labeling is definitely not the one and only answer to obesity. It is one piece of the puzzle. It allows consumers to have the option of making a healthy choice. I think one thing menu labeling is missing is a visual aid to help consumers who want to make a better choice for themselves but who do not take the time to learn about nutrition.

    1. michaela

      Thank you for your comment! You’re absolutely right–it is one piece of the entire puzzle and can be a helpful resource, especially if other pieces of the puzzle are in place. Adding a visual aid is a great idea. I think a simple, colorful graphic would be more attractive and easier to understand for most people.

  2. Marion Taylor

    Awesome insights Michaela! I completely agree that menu labeling is only part of the big picture, but definitely a step in the right direction. Ideally, it will help people make that jump from understanding to action, when the tools you need to live a healthy life (for you as an individual) are easily accessible and the norm, it cannot do anything but help. You may be interested in our recent blog post about menu labeling & how it can also benefit the food industry in meeting the health needs and demands of consumers, – another piece of the broader puzzle. Thanks for the great read!

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