by Stephanie Linakis, MPH
In late 2010, Congress passed a law requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie content on their menus and menu boards. The law was a provision in the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), and was driven by the belief that individuals might consume excess calories when they are eating restaurant meals because of limited awareness of the calorie content. Since I manage a study that is investigating the impact of menu labeling at six chain fast-food restaurants in New England, I was particularly intrigued by a recent talk by Dr. Lorien Urban regarding restaurants exempt from the law.
The research team from Tufts University analyzed meals from 33 independent and small chain restaurants. These small chain restaurants will be exempt from the new federal rules even though they account for approximately 50% of the nation’s restaurant locations. The researchers collected samples from nine of the most common restaurant types: Mexican, American, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese. The research team focused on some of the most frequently purchased meals at these restaurants: Fettuccine Alfredo at Italian, for example, or Lamb Vindaloo at Indian. On average, the studied meals contained 1,327 calories, a huge amount considering the average daily calorie requirements for adults are 2000 calories. American (1,494 calories) and Chinese (1,474 calories) meals had the highest average calorie levels. Vietnamese meals had the lowest, with an average of 922 calories. Even Vietnamese meals, however, had more calories than the typical fast-food meals that we investigated in our study in New England (836 calories for adults).
The work of Dr. Urban and her colleagues illustrates how independent and small-chain restaurants may be an overlooked group of restaurants under the impending calorie menu labeling policies. The most popular food choices at these smaller businesses provide twice as much energy as is required for weight maintenance, yet their customers won’t have access to the same information available at large chains when calorie labeling is implemented in late 2015. Dr. Urban’s study discusses other important considerations as well, such as how much people underestimate calories at these small chains. Since I attended the presentation of this research, the FDA finalized the two rules that will mandate calorie menu-labeling. To the FDA’s credit (and the chagrin of industry group lobbyists), the rules are rather far-reaching and include grocery stores, movie theaters, pizza take-out, and amusement parks, among others. One can only hope, then, that the public will apply any newfound knowledge about calorie counts that they glean from large chains to their purchasing choices at smaller chains, and that states and municipalities will exercise their authority to legislate the posting of calories at small chains in time. Media coverage like the New York Times recent report on “What 2000 Calories Looks Like” will help as well.
Until then, behold the power of Fettuccine Alfredo, Chicken Tikka Masala, Moussaka, and a handful of other popular food items in shaping the nation’s health.