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Researchers: King County Menu Labeling Reduces Overeating

It’s been more than two years since King County required chain restaurants to post nutrition information on their menus.  The goal was to help customers make healthy choices. 

Seattle researchers wanted to see if the regulation has changed the way restaurants market their meals.  One change the study found is it seems restaurants are no longer promoting supersized portions or overeating. 

Brian Saelens is a researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital and one of the study's authors.  He says before the regulation took effect, about 61 percent of restaurants in King County had descriptions in their menu that encouraged large portions. 

“About six months later, after menu labeling, about 32 percent of them had a descriptor in their menu that encouraged large portions. And then a year and a half later, it was down to 19 percent.”

I met Saelens at a food court at a Seattle mall where he checked out the menu board at one of the restaurant chains to see if there were cues for larger portions.  “I don’t see anything here that says eat, or super-size, or eat a lot,” he says.

Saelens' study also found that the average calorie count at chain restaurants has gone down over time.  He doesn’t know whether the change is a coincidence, or whether it’s a direct result of the menu labeling requirement. 

But not all changes have been positive.  Some restaurants offered healthier alternatives on their menu.  But when it came to choices for kids, Saelens noted not much had changed. 

So why do all these things matter — the environment, the menu choices?  Isn’t it enough to post information about calorie, salt, and fat content to help customers make informed choices? 

Saelens says it’s not that simple.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we all made rational choices all the time, based on hard information related to health?  But people don’t always.”  Saelens says some people do want to know the nutritional content of their food.  The menu labeling regulation makes it easier to get that information. “This is one step in that process; let’s make information easier to get, and then let’s move from there to, how do we make healthy choices easier choices.”

Saelens says the study will help inform the county’s health board and whether some changes are needed down the road.  King County was the second region in the country to require restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus. 

The study is published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Year started with KUOW: 1994