NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Chain restaurants in the Seattle area seem to have made small changes for the better since a 2009 law forced them to put nutrition information on their menus, a new study finds.
Eighteen months after the law went into effect in King County, Washington, calorie counts were a bit lower, the study found. "Sit down" chain restaurants did better than fast-food joints: their entrees were an average of 73 calories lighter, versus a small, 19-calorie reduction at fast-food places.
There were also some improvements in sodium and saturated fat content.
Whether the changes happened because of the label law is not clear. "We can't say the menu labeling was the cause, because we could only look at restaurants in our jurisdiction," said lead researcher Barbara Bruemmer, of the University of Washington in Seattle.
It's possible that there's been an overall trend for chain restaurants to make their offerings a bit healthier, Bruemmer noted in an interview.
But, she said, the findings, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, at least suggest that "there's a benefit to getting this information out there to people."
In 2008, New York City became the first U.S. city to mandate that fast-food chains post nutrition information on their menus. King County and a handful of other areas followed suit. (New York also banned trans fats, a move that seems to have lowered the amount of those fats in foods:.)
And soon many chain restaurants across the U.S. will have to come clean with information on calories, fat and other nutrients. The Affordable Care Act requires restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to list those numbers on their menus.
Advocates hope the move will help make a dent in the nation's obesity epidemic, since studies have found links between eating out and obesity risk.
But that remains to be seen.
Menu labeling is intended to give consumers information. But supporters also hope it will nudge restaurants to make their meals healthier, Bruemmer said.
MOST MEALS STILL LESS THAN HEALTHY
To see if that might be happening, her team "audited" entrees at 37 chain restaurants in King County -- six months after the menu law went into effect, then again at the 18-month mark.
In one comparison, they focused on entrees that were on the restaurants' menus at both time points. On average, sit-down chains -- places like Denny's and Applebee's -- trimmed 73 calories from those meals. That meant dipping from an average of 1,044 calories to 970.
"That might not sound like a lot," Bruemmer said. "But it's a step in the right direction."
Similarly, saturated fat declined from almost 18 grams per meal, to just over 16. Meanwhile, sodium levels declined from more than 2,100 milligrams -- about the amount an adult should get in a whole day -- to 1,900 mg.
Fast-food places, like McDonald's, Burger King and Subway, made some minor changes. The typical entrée went from 669 calories to 650, while sodium dipped by 18 mg, to land at around 1,600 mg per entrée.
All of that still left most meals in less-than-healthy territory. Of all chain restaurant entrees for adults, 56 percent still exceed the recommended limit for calories. Three-quarters contained too much saturated fat, and a full 89 percent exceeded sodium guidelines.
A big question is whether giving people nutrition information actually changes their ordering habits. So far, studies have been mixed.
But a study last year in New York City found that the lunchtime crowds at McDonald's, Au Bon Pain and KFC were buying fewer calories after the menu law went into effect, versus the year before.
More studies on consumers' actual choices will be coming out, Bruemmer said. Since menu laws are fairly new, it's hard to tell what the impact has been.
"Right now, we can't really say how much (consumers) are engaged," Bruemmer said.
And of course, the ultimate hope is that menu information will be good for public health.
But obesity is complex and not due to any one cause, Bruemmer said. So it will be challenging for studies to show whether menu labels are having actual health effects.
Bruemmer also noted that many people may not know what to do with the nutrition information on menus. "Most consumers are confused about calories," Bruemmer said. "They wonder, ‘What's right for me?'"
But with menu labeling, they can at least see which meals give them fewer calories, fat and sodium than others. "The information is out there," Bruemmer said. "People can start to look for calorie counts just like they look for prices."
SOURCE: bit.ly/Mb1bEG Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online June 18, 2012.