Will posting calorie content on menus lead to healthier choices?May 7, 2010Megan Ogilvie
Students at the University of Waterloo will soon have an edge on the rest of us when they grab lunch at the school’s food court.
They’ll know, from just a quick glance at the menu, whether the healthy looking salad will do more harm to their waistlines than the meat-covered pizza, or if the benign-sounding turkey club is in fact a lurking calorie bomb.
Unless policy-makers make a sudden move, the students will be the only ones in Canada to see a restaurant list an item’s calorie content alongside its price tag.
It’s all part of a new study to test whether posting nutrition information on restaurant menus helps people to make healthier food choices. The study, funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, is the first of its kind in Canada.
“This is potentially a high-profile policy issue, it’s surprising that more hasn’t been done,” says the study’s lead researcher David Hammond, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo.
“The reality is Canadians are eating more and more outside the home and really don’t know anything about what they’re eating. . . . It’s difficult when you can have coffee products that either have 20 calories or up to 800 calories.”
While no jurisdiction in Canada has moved to label menus, a half-dozen U.S. states, including California and Oregon, as well as New York City, have passed legislation requiring restaurant chains to post calorie information on their menus. And the newly signed U.S. health-care bill contains national regulations that will require any restaurant with five or more locations to put the calorie content of their meals on menus.
With more than 60 per cent of Canadian adults and close to one-third of children overweight or obese, Hammond says it is critical to look at whether changes in our environment can help stem the obesity epidemic.
“We need to make it easier for Canadians to make healthier choices and this is one option,” says Hammond, noting the Canadian Cancer Society funded his work because of the growing link between obesity and cancer risk.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, healthy diets, being active and maintaining a healthy body weight may reduce the incidence of cancer by up to 35 per cent.
Right now, many fast-food chains in Canada voluntarily provide nutrition information for their menu items either on their company websites or in a brochure at the restaurant. Consumers have to make an effort to find out Tim Hortons’ BLT sandwich contains 420 calories, for example, or McDonald’s Caesar salad with crispy chicken has 670 calories.
Hammond’s study will investigate whether posting calorie information on menu boards at fast-food outlets on the University of Waterloo campus affect food choices of students and faculty.
The study will also determine what kind of menu labelling is most effective by providing 600 adults with four different kinds of menus featuring Tim Hortons fare.
Hammond says the two-year study, for which he received $276,000 from the Canadian Cancer Society, will help move the policy debate forward in Canada.
“We want to provide evidence to decision makers in Canada to help them determine whether or not this is a good thing to consider,” Hammond says. “And if they do want to do it, what is the most effective approach.”
U.S. studies have shown mixed results about whether menu labelling helps consumers make healthier choices. Hammond says there is evidence that women, people who already pay close attention to their diet, and those who are well-educated and of a higher socioeconomic background make use of the nutritional information.
However, he adds, since the policy has potential to reach millions of people a day, even a modest impact will translate into a huge benefit at the population level.
“There is some research showing that even if only one out of 10 people changes what they order and eat, and that change only amounts to about 100 calories a day, that is still millions of pounds in the population that won’t be added.”