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UK food chains with voluntary menu labeling serve less fat and salt

Mandatory labeling could encourage restaurants to improve nutrition of offerings


In a study of popular U.K. restaurant chains, establishments that voluntarily labeled their menus with nutritional information served items with less fat and less salt than items served by restaurants without menu labeling. Dolly Theis and Jean Adams of the University of Cambridge, U.K., present these findings in PLOS ONE on October 16, 2019.

Labeling menus with nutritional information is a commonly proposed public health intervention to help improve people's diets. Previous research suggests that labelling has, at best, a modest influence on consumer purchasing. However, menu labeling could encourage restaurants to improve the nutrition of the food they serve, potentially acting as a passive yet positive influence on customers' diets.

To address that possibility, Theis and Adams visited the websites of popular U.K. restaurant chains to gather information about the self-reported nutritional content of their menu items. Then, they looked for nutritional differences between items served at restaurants that voluntarily provided nutritional information to consumers when ordering or purchasing food, and items served at restaurants without such menu labeling.

Of the 100 most popular U.K. restaurants by sales, 42 provided nutritional information online, and 14 of those restaurants voluntarily labeled their menus with this information. Analysis of almost 10,000 menu items revealed that restaurants with voluntary menu labeling served food with 45 percent less fat and 60 percent less salt than food served by restaurants without menu labeling. Results were less clear for certain other nutrition factor. For example, some menu items from restaurants both with and without menu labelling had very large portion sizes and were nutritionally imbalanced.

While the findings are limited to the U.K., they suggest the possibility that mandatory menu labeling could encourage restaurants to improve the nutrition of their dishes. However, it is also possible that restaurants already in the habit of serving more nutritional dishes are also more likely to voluntarily label their menus. Further research is needed to clarify whether menu labeling could be an effective public health strategy to make dining out healthier.

"This is the first study to look at differences in nutritional content of food from restaurants with and without menu labelling in the UK," said Dolly Theis from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research at Cambridge. "It suggests that on the whole, restaurants who provide information on calories on menus also serve healthier food, in terms of fat and salt levels. As well as providing useful information for customers, mandatory menu labelling could also encourage restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their menus."


Citation: Theis DRZ, Adams J (2019) Differences in energy and nutritional content of menu items served by popular UK chain restaurants with versus without voluntary menu labelling: A cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0222773.

Funding: DT is supported by the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. JA is supported by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. Funding from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research, and the Wellcome Trust, under the auspices of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, is gratefully acknowledged (grant number MR/K023187/1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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