When the customers saw calorie information before ordering, they purchased an average of 52 fewer calories than customers who overlooked the calorie counts.
Unfortunately the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 explicitly exempted restaurants.Under current law,restaurants must make nutrition information available only when they make a health
or nutrient-content claim for a food or meal.Ifa menu board claims that a sandwich is low-fat,for example,the restaurant is required to have available, somewhere in the store, information about the fat
content of that sandwich.
Unlike for processed foods, whose nutrition information must be determined by laboratory analysis, nutri-
tion information regarding restaurant claims may be determined from nutrient databases,cookbooks,or “other reasonable basis.”
Some restaurants, particularly fast-food chains, provide brochures or posters with nutrition information regarding their menu items. Several fast-food chains,however,provided in-store nutrition information
only after state attorneys general and consumer groups applied some pressure.
In 1986 state attorneys general from several states,including Texas, New York, and California, negotiated an agreement with McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, KFC, and Wendy’s,to provide nutrition and ingredient information in their restaurants.
We see a number of problems with the current voluntary system for providing nutrition information in chain restaurants.
In fact, most chain restaurants do not provide such information. McDonald’s and Burger King, to their credit,are the exceptions.
A 1997 survey ofthe largest chain restaurants found that two-thirds (65 percent) do not provide customers with any nutrition information (including on menus, menu boards, pamphlets, table tents, or posters).
And often those that do provide the information do so in large, complicated tables listing everything from protein and cholesterol to iron and vitamin A. These tables can be hard to use because they present
an overwhelming amount of information in small print for every food item.
And not many busy customers want to lose their place in line to try to interpret a poster chock-full of small print.
Worst ofall,as time and experience have proved,it is unlikely that a voluntary system will prompt many more restaurants to provide nutrition information.
Two-thirds of the largest chain restaurants believe they do not have a responsibility to provide nutrition labeling.
This is unfortunate, for one older study, done in a cafeteria setting, showed that posting signs indicating the calorie content of available foods signiﬁcantly decreased the number ofcalories purchased.
An unpublished evaluation of a menu labeling program at four northwestern table-service restaurants also found that calorie labeling on menus led to entrée selections lower in calories.
We believe Congress and state or local legislatures should require food-service chains with ten or more units to list the calorie, saturated and trans fat (combined), and sodium contents of standard menu items.
Where space is limited, restaurants that use menu boards should be required to provide at least calorie information next to each item on their boards.
We also believe that labeling should be required for foods and beverages sold “to go”at food retailers such as cookie counters in shopping malls, vending machines, drive-through windows, and convenience stores.
Further,nutrition information should be required to be listed as prominently as price and other key menu information.
The Institute of Medicine joins us in urging restaurants to provide calorie content and other nutrition information.