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The long-term benefits of calorie labeling in restaurants

Calorie labeling in restaurants and revised calorie labels on foods could positively impact the country's health.
Calorie labeling in restaurants and revised calorie labels on foods could positively impact the country's health.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Yesterday, July 31, an article by a recent Yale School of Public Health graduate appeared in the renowned JAMA, highlighting potential benefits to calorie posting in restaurants. This controversial move has come under scrutiny, especially since the 2010 Affordable Care Act has mandated it for all chains with at least 20 restaurants. The benefits of posting calorie content are still inconclusive despite several studies, however, this article provided potential improvements in health resulting from the labels.

The purpose of these calorie labels, both inside restaurants as well as on drive-through boards, is to help improve the transparency of what is in the food we are eating and enable people to make healthier choices based on that information. Clearly not everyone will use these markers to make better choices, but studies have shown that calorie labeling is most effective when a key for the daily recommended caloric intake for men and women is included. Since individuals are more likely to overeat at restaurants, where oversized plates and portions make it hard to determine how much is being consumed, this policy at least offers awareness to consumers.

Additionally, it appears that consumers want to know what they are eating. The article cites a study of a nationally-representative sample, where 81% of respondents supported menu labeling in chain restaurants. Regardless of what the special interest groups and lobbyists say, people do want the knowledge, and therefore, the power to make health decisions.

Although the data on whether or not menu labeling makes a significant difference in choices remains inconclusive, it is not necessarily because it does not make a difference. As pointed out in JAMA, we currently do not have long-term data on the effects of menu labeling, because it has only been in effect to some degree since 2010 and the final roll-out does not start until this summer. It could be that calorie labels do work, but that it takes a longer time than currently studied for the results to show.

Longer-term data could show, for example, an increased consumer awareness of calories, reduced eating out, ordering less or lower-calorie options, changing social norms around food ordering and consumption, or generally just raise awareness about healthy eating. The most likely scenario is that menu labeling does help some consumers some of the time and with the high rate of dining out in America, this modest effect could have large population benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, disclosing the caloric content of its food could actually embarrass the restaurants (there are certainly several menu items that exceed the daily recommended caloric intake) and cause them to reformat those items in a healthier way. There is evidence that restaurants are conscious of their image as calories are posted; one study in Seattle, Washington found that there was a consistent decrease in caloric content across chain restaurants after the menu labeling law went into effect. Certainly having restaurants decide to offer healthier options could more greatly impact health than individuals choosing healthier options.

Time will tell what impact menu labeling will have on the health of our nation, but it at least represents a commitment on a national level to prioritize public health. This is a first step to ensuring that the next generation enjoys a healthy, fuller life, less dependent on food advertising and lobbying and more able to make informed choices about their health.

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