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Menu labelling linked to less fat and salt in food at major UK restaurant chains

Published: 04 November 2019

NIHR-funded research shows that food sold at restaurants whose menus display energy information is lower in fat and salt than food sold at their competitors.

Obesity levels worldwide have almost tripled since 1975, making it one of the most pressing public health challenges today. Poor diet is a leading contributor to obesity as well as to diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Researchers funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) set out to determine whether there were differences in the energy and nutritional content of food served by popular UK chain restaurants with voluntary menu labelling versus those without labelling. 

The team at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), University of Cambridge, first looked at energy and nutritional information on the websites of the most popular 100 UK restaurant chains during March and April 2018. The list of restaurants included dine in and takeaway options. There were lots of different types of restaurants in the list including burger chains, pub groups, sandwich shops, Japanese and Italian chains and take away outlets. Of these 100 restaurants, 42 provided some form of energy and nutritional information online, but only 13 provided menu labelling in stores.

Food from restaurants with in-store menu labelling had on average 45% less fat and 60% less salt than items from other restaurants. The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that on the whole, restaurants that provide information on calories on menus serve healthier food, in terms of fat and salt levels.  

The researchers say that it is possible that menu labelling encourages restaurants to change the content of their food and also that those chains with ‘healthier’ offerings are more likely to label their menus. The researchers also looked at the energy content of different categories of food offered by the restaurants who had nutritional information on their websites: appetisers & sides, baked goods, beverages, burgers, desserts, fried potatoes, mains, pizza, salads, sandwiches, soup and toppings & ingredients.

They found that at least three-quarters of individual menu items were below the daily maximum recommended intake for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. However, some individual items contained more than twice the daily recommended amount for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt. In one case, an individual dish contained 5,961Kcal – almost three times the daily recommended maximum for an average adult woman. 

Dr Jean Adams, at CEDAR, said: “We found some restaurant items that hugely exceeded the daily recommended intake for energy, fats, sugar and salt. More than a quarter of UK adults eat meals out at least once a week, so such large or nutritionally-imbalanced portions could contribute to poor dietary intake at a population level.” 

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