Those New Year’s health resolutions may get easier to stick to when new Food and Drug Administration guidelines requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calorie information on menus go into effect in May.
But while earlier research led by Arizona State University Professor Punam Ohri-Vachaspati of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion found that menu-labeling, as the practice is called, does generally encourage consumers to make healthier choices, the most recent study to come out of her camp found that exposure to the practice could be woefully limited.
“A large portion of restaurant-goers will not have exposure to menu-labeling, which makes it harder for individuals to make informed choices about what they eat,” said Jessie Gruner, an ASU alum and lead author on the paper. “It makes finding healthy choices that much more difficult when nutrition information is not provided to customers, especially since consumption of away-from-home food is at an all-time high historically …
“Additionally, lower-income populations, which are already at risk for poorer health outcomes, will likely have less exposure to menu-labeling, which could result in further health disparities,” Gruner said.
The results of the study, published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, found that less than half of the number of restaurants projected by the FDA and the National Restaurant Association to be affected will actually be required to adopt menu-labeling — 17.6 percent of restaurants, compared to the projection of 36 to 40 percent.
Furthermore, the study found that exposure to menu-labeling will vary depending on income and race/ethnicity.
Researchers analyzed publicly available geocoded data collected from 1,753 restaurants in four New Jersey cities (Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Trenton). Among those restaurants, 308 (17.6 percent) belonged to chains with 20 or more locations, and will therefore be required to adhere to menu-labeling regulations come May.
The location data was then cross-referenced with census data to determine which income tracts and races/ethnicities would be most affected.
Restaurants located in higher-income areas were found to be more likely to be required to adopt the practice than those in middle- or lower-income areas.
Separately, restaurants located in majority non-Hispanic black and mixed race/ethnicity neighborhoods were also found to be more likely to be required to adopt the practice.
“This gives us kind of a baseline to see which communities will be impacted,” Ohri-Vachaspati, a senior author on the paper, said.
That knowledge will be important when evaluating menu-labeling’s effects, giving researchers an idea of where to test increased exposure or if it’s necessary to require smaller restaurants (with less than 20 locations nationwide) to adopt menu-labeling as well — something that may be a prohibitive cost and necessitate federal support.
“We know that certain populations have a greater risk of poor health outcomes, particularly low-income communities,” Gruner said. “Policies, especially health policies, should target these at-risk populations in order to reduce the health disparities that we see.”
Exposure to menu-labeling is just one ingredient in the recipe for making a lasting, positive change to dining out in America. Another is ensuring consumer understanding of the labeling. Thankfully, as part of the upcoming FDA regulations, restaurants will also be required to add contextual language to help consumers understand menu labeling with respect to daily calorie recommendations (for example, “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary” for adults and “1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general advice for children ages four to eight years, but calorie needs vary” for children).
Beyond that, Ohri-Vachaspati foresees public health officials working with restaurants to come up with healthier meal options, whether that means adjusting portion sizes or offering more nutrient-rich foods.
And while these early results suggest changes need to be made at the exposure level of menu-labeling regulations so that everyone has the ability to make healthier decisions, polls have shown that consumers are hungry for the chance.
“There has been overwhelming support from consumers,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “So maybe there will be a bigger demand once the regulation goes nationwide.”
Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.com.