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CDC: Mandated Nutrition Labels on Restaurant Menus Do Not Improve Nutritional Content

Recommends more government regulations and increased government and media pressure anyway.

1:14 PM, Jun 21, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday published the results of a study on the effects of nutrition labeling on fast-food menus from 2005 to 2011.  Researchers were interested in the impact of locally instituted regulations by various states and municipalities, including New York City, on the overall "healthfulness" of menu offerings.  The report concluded that mandated menu labeling at fast food chains did not improve nutritional content.  While there was a 50 percent increase in “healthier” options (from 13 percent to 20 percent of all menu selections), overall menu nutrition was unchanged.  From the report [emphasis added]:

These findings suggest that menu labeling has thus far not affected the average nutritional content of fast-food menu items, but it may motivate restaurants to increase the availability of healthier options...

We found that after the implementation of menu labeling there was a statistically significant increase in the percentage of healthier adult entrées at restaurants in jurisdictions with menu-labeling laws compared with restaurants that were not in jurisdictions subject to labeling. Little improvement, however, was seen among children’s entrées during this period, and no significant changes in average nutritional values were seen among adult entrées and sides. 

In some of the five chains studied, some menu selections even moved in a decidedly unhealthy direction, thus negating the impact of the increased number of "healthy" choices:

...2 of 5 showed no improvement and even launched new options, such as bacon cheeseburgers, that increased average calories by almost 20% and cholesterol by almost 140%.

Despite the disappointing results, however, the researchers suggest that, in addition to further study, the response to these findings should be more government regulations and increased government and media pressure:

Our results suggest menu labeling may provide fast-food restaurants with motivation to introduce healthier menu options; however, greater pressure may be necessary to generate overall average nutritional improvements... 

Additional public policies and media advocacy campaigns may be needed to spur broader changes in restaurant offerings so that healthier restaurant choices become the default choice for consumers... In addition, policy makers could consider minimum nutritional standards for meals targeted to children, as have been implemented in a few local jurisdictions... Simultaneous strategies should be considered to encourage chain restaurant companies to significantly improve the nutritional quality of the foods they sell, with portion-size reduction a key focus.

Researchers were particularly concerned with the lack of healthy selections for children, since when using the stricter "nutritional criteria to define healthier options," only one of the nine fast food chains in the study even had any qualifying items.

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