Changes in chain restaurant menus haven’t improved calorie and sodium levels

We’ve looked at the many different reasons fast food is not a healthy choice here at FoodFacts.com. Fast food chains (and other chain restaurants) have come under fire fairly consistently for serving foods containing too many calories, too much sodium and too much fat. It’s gotten to the point where many of those chains have replaced or added menu items that they are claiming are better consumer choices. Seems like everyone should be happy with their response, doesn’t it? Maybe not …

Although a number of chain restaurants have announced healthy menu changes over the years, the overall calorie and sodium levels in main entrées offered by top U.S. chain restaurants assessed from 2010 to 2011 have remained the same, according to a study published today in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The study, “Changes in the Energy and Sodium Content of Main Entrées in U.S. Chain Restaurants from 2010 to 2011,” evaluated the nutritional content changes of more than 26,000 regular menu entrées in a year by 213 major U.S. chain restaurants nationwide. It also looked at entrées among restaurants that included children’s menus.

“Restaurant menus did not get any healthier over time,” said Helen Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System.

Between the spring of 2010 and spring of 2011, Wu and Roland Sturm, senior economist at the RAND Corp., reviewed restaurant websites for nutrition information. They found that, even with all the substitutions and reformulations eateries made to their menus, restaurants made no meaningful nutrition changes overall. The average entrée in 2010 contained 670 calories and remained at 670 calories one year later. Sodium levels only dropped from 1,515 milligrams per entrée to 1,500 milligrams at follow-up.

The study was conducted at a time when restaurants faced ongoing internal and external pressures to increase healthier menu offerings. For example, the study examined restaurant menu changes in the year following passage of a federal menu-labeling mandate, which was passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. More than three years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not issued final regulations directing chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus, though some restaurants, such as McDonald’s, have already started posting calorie counts on their menu boards.

“The implementation of a national menu labeling law could be an important strategy to accelerate progress on menu nutrition in restaurants by encouraging more substantial menu nutrition changes,” Wu said.

“Maybe some more encouragement is needed, as in the Choose Health LA Restaurants program that the Department of Public Health started in September,” Sturm said. “Restaurants participating can post a large decal in their window if they offer smaller portion sizes and healthier children’s meals with less fried food and more fruits and vegetables.”

In the United States, 82 percent of adults eat out at least once a week. Previous research has shown that increased consumption of food away from home is associated with increased consumption of calories, fat and sodium. Currently, two-thirds of U.S. adults and nearly one-third of children and teens are obese or overweight.

Regardless of their menu promotions, the majority of fast food chain offerings remain unhealthy choices for the population. It’s fair to say that even some of the less caloric options coming from the chains should be avoided. After all, calories aren’t everything and ingredient lists count. FoodFacts.com hope that studies like this will help more consumers become more nutritionally aware of the foods they are consuming. It’s so easy to be swayed by claims of healthier menu choices. The reality of the claims by chain restaurants often doesn’t match the rhetoric. We should all dig a little deeper to find the truth about fast food.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131001091507.htm