Restaurant menus: Reveal the calories
■ As Americans eat out more frequently, it's important for chain restaurants to provide customers with nutrition information in menus and on menu boards.
Posted Oct. 8, 2007.
In the fight against America's obesity epidemic, cities and states are taking a new tactic: Requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information on their menus and menu boards.
At least 14 states and three cities have passed or are considering such measures. One of the most prominent efforts, New York City's, just lost a court challenge posed by the restaurant industry.
But U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Holwell's decision to throw out New York's regulation isn't the defeat it seems to be. It's quite the opposite.
Holwell's ruling focused narrowly on the way the city constructed its nutrition-posting rules. More important, the ruling endorses the underlying concept that such regulations are lawful. City officials are exploring their options, including rewriting the measure.
New York's regulation would have applied only to restaurants that already voluntarily publicly disclose nutrition facts in such places as on the Internet, on food wrappers or in brochures. These establishments would have been required to post the calorie counts of standardized offerings on their menu boards and in menus. Limiting the new rules to restaurants that already voluntarily post the information violates federal laws on nutrition labeling, Holwell concluded.
But he noted that most state or local regulations that impose a blanket mandatory duty to post nutrition information would not conflict with federal law. For example, a measure applying to 10 or more restaurants with the same name would be legal, Holwell stated.
The National League of Cities, a major proponent of such posting efforts, said the ruling is an overall win that provides guidelines for states and cities to follow.
The importance of measures such as New York's are unmistakable. An estimated 66% of U.S. adults are classified as overweight or obese, based on body mass index. Seventeen percent of children and adolescents are overweight. More than 100,000 deaths per year may be attributable to obesity. Overweight increases the risk of heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions.
States and cities are right to try to attack this public health crisis by requiring chain restaurants to provide consumers with nutrition data in the most visible place. In June, the American Medical Association passed policy supporting federal, state and local efforts to require fast-food and other chain restaurants with more than 10 units to provide customers with nutrition information on menus and menu boards.
The nation's experience with federal laws on nutrition labeling for packaged food shows that such efforts are worthwhile. Three-quarters of adults report reading food labels on packaged food, and about half report that the labels affect food choices. It stands to reason that arming consumers with similar details on restaurant menus and menu boards would have the same effect.
This insight is sorely needed. Research shows that consumers, on average, underestimate the calorie count of less-healthful restaurant items by more than 600 calories. Meanwhile, Americans today are eating out twice as much as they did in 1970.
This circumstance is particularly problematic given that it is not uncommon for a restaurant meal to contain more than half or even the full amount of calories recommended for daily intake.
The restaurant industry argues that laws requiring nutrition posting on menus and menu boards are unnecessary because so many chain establishments are disclosing it publicly.
But their methods of communicating these data are far from ideal. Most consumers don't check restaurants' Web sites to discover the amount of fat and calories in the various dishes before heading out the door. They might not notice a brochure at a fast-food outlet. Postings on tray liners or food wrappers can be read only after customers have purchased their meals -- too late to influence their dining decisions.
The various state and local measures do not detract from people's right to eat what they want or restrict restaurant menu offerings. They simply would create informed consumers. That would be a truly healthy development in the fight against obesity.