Poster Theater Flash Session
Community and Public Health Nutrition
Objectives : This study concerns how the description of foods on restaurant menus relates to their nutrient content as disclosed on company websites. We aimed to test halo effects, regarding how claims about some desirable features might be associated with the presence of other attributes.
Methods : We used item descriptions and nutrient data for food items (n=92,949) at the top-selling restaurant chains (n=92) from 2012 through 2017 in the United States, compiled by the MenuStat project. We classified items into 4 types (mains, appetizers, desserts, sides) and claims into 3 groups using 29 search terms based on consumer interests in health (e.g. "nutritious"), product sourcing (e.g. "local" or "organic"), and vegetal items (vegetarian or vegan). Nutrient data focus on 4 dietary recommendations to limit sodium (mg), trans-fat (g) and saturated fats (% of energy), and to increase fiber (g). We also report calories per item (kcal) and its share from carbohydrates, protein and total fat (%). We used multiple regression to test whether nutrient content was associated with menu claims, controlling for year and restaurant brand, the item being marked as “shareable”, on a kid’s menu, or regional and limited-time offerings. Methods and hypotheses were preregistered on As-Predicted.com.
Results : Contrary to our prediction, nutrient content was more often aligned with U.S. dietary guidelines when their description did include claims. With 3 claim types, 4 food types and 4 recommendations we test 48 possible cases. In 25 (52%) we found alignment between claims and nutrient recommendations, e.g. main dishes with health-related claims had 2% less calories from saturated fat (p< 0.01) and 142 mg less sodium (p< 0.01). In 3 of 48 cases (7%), claims were contrary to recommendations, all of which were desserts with sourcing claims which had more sodium, more trans-fat and more saturated fat than other desserts (all p< 0.01). In 20 of 48 cases (42%) there was no significant difference between items with and without claims.
Items described as vegetarian/vegan or with sourcing and health claims had nutrient contents that were more often aligned with dietary guidelines than other items. Menu labeling that communicates meal content more directly, such as nutrient fact panels, could inform choice and build trust in restaurant meals.
Funding Sources : None.