-- Robert Preidt
TUESDAY, Feb. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Even when fast-food
restaurants list calorie counts for menu items, diners may still
have a hard time using the information to make healthy meal
choices, researchers report.
In the study, the scientists examined the calorie listings for
200 food items on menu boards from 12 restaurant chains in the New
York City neighborhood of Harlem.
Too often, calorie counts were listed for combo meals or meals
intended to serve multiple people, or had wide ranges in what the
calorie count might be.
For example, a bucket of chicken was listed as having 3,240 to
12,360 calories, but the menu board did not provide enough
information for consumers to determine the number of pieces of
chicken in a serving size.
A listing for a sandwich combo meal said it ranged from 500 to
2,080 calories. However, no information was provided on how to
order within the lower range of this menu item.
Under federal law, restaurants with 20 or more locations must
provide calorie data and additional nutritional information for
menu items and self-serve foods. Although the calorie information
complied with U.S. labeling rules, consumers may have a tough time
making sense of much of it, the study found.
"Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person," wrote study author Elizabeth Gross Cohn, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing, and colleagues. "In some items, calories doubled depending on flavor, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections."
Researchers suggested that calorie listings should do more than
merely comply, but take into account what level of "math literacy"
is needed to make use of the information. In a revised system, a
breakfast sandwich, for example, would be listed as, "Egg with
ham/bacon/sausage: 350/550/750," so consumers could know exactly
how many calories various options would add.
"In low-income communities with a high density of chain restaurants, and where educational attainment of consumers may be low, simplifying calorie postings and minimizing the math required to calculate calories would increase menu-board utility," the researchers wrote.
The study was published online Feb. 16 in the
Journal of Urban Health.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers advice about
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