What's on the Menu?

A Review of the Energy and Nutritional Content of US Chain Restaurant Menus

Published in: Public Health Nutrition, v. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2013, p. 87-96

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2012

by Helen Wu, Roland Sturm

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Research Questions

  1. Among the top 400 chain restaurant brands in the U.S., how many provide complete nutrition information?
  2. How nutritious are various menu items?
  3. What are the relationships among restaurant characteristics, menu labels, and availability of nutrition information?
  4. How does nutrient and energy content on these menus stack up against government criteria?

OBJECTIVE: The present study aimed to (i) describe the availability of nutrition information in major chain restaurants, (ii) document the energy and nutrient levels of menu items, (iii) evaluate relationships with restaurant characteristics, menu labeling and trans fat laws, and nutrition information accessibility, and (iv) compare energy and nutrient levels against industry-sponsored and government-issued nutrition criteria. DESIGN: Descriptive statistics and multivariate regression analysis of the energy, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate and protein levels of 28 531 regular and 1392 children's menu items. SETTING: Energy and nutrition information provided on restaurant websites or upon request, and secondary databases on restaurant characteristics. SUBJECTS: The top 400 US chain restaurants by sales, based on the 2009 list of the Restaurants & Institutions magazine. RESULTS: Complete nutrition information was reported for 245 (61 %) restaurants. Appetizers had more energy, fat and sodium than all other item types. Children's menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages. The majority of main entrées fell below one-third of the US Department of Agriculture's estimated daily energy needs, but as few as 3 % were also within limits for sodium, fat and saturated fat. Main entrées had significantly more energy, fat and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants. Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request. CONCLUSIONS: The paper provides a comprehensive view of chain restaurant menu nutrition prior to nationwide labeling laws. It offers baseline data to evaluate how restaurants respond after laws are implemented.

Key Findings

  • Complete nutrition information was reported for 61 percent of restaurant brands.
  • Appetizers had more calories, fat, and sodium than all other item types, including main entrées.
  • Main entrées had significantly more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.
  • Restaurants that made nutrition information accessible on websites had lower calorie, fat, and sodium content than those providing information only on request.
  • Approximately 96 percent of main entrées did not meet a measure based upon U.S. government recommendations for sodium, fat, saturated fat, and calories combined.

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