Even if all diners don’t respond as hoped, mandatory calorie labeling seems to be motivating restaurants to reformulate their products and shift their menus toward lower-calorie fare, since previously they didn’t have to reveal how shockingly high the calories often are.
A 2012 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggested (but did not prove) that this is what happened in King County, Washington. Looking at 37 chain restaurants before and after implementation of menu labeling, the researchers found that entrée calories went down moderately atsit-down chains (73 calories, on average)—though not significantly at quick-service restaurants. Even with the reductions, calories remained high.
In more recent years, research from Harvard and Johns Hopkins has found that many large chain restaurants with voluntary menu labeling—presumably in anticipation of federal regulations—have not only reduced calories overall and in some of their newly introduced items, but they have also dropped some higher-calorie items from their menus.
A potential sticking point is how menu items are being modified to have fewer calories. A 2016 study reported that new menu items had fewer calories because unsaturated fats were reduced, which doesn’t necessarily make the food healthier (the opposite may be true); meanwhile, more sugar was being added to desserts.
Another big question is how accurate the calorie labels even are. As we’ve reported, restaurants often understate the number of calories on their menus or menu boards. But even if most calorie counts are slightly off, it can still be useful to compare the numbers before ordering.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.