Changes in the Energy and Sodium Content of Main Entrées in US Chain Restaurants from 2010 to 2011

Published:October 03, 2013DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.07.035

      Abstract

      Background

      The food environment shapes individual diets, and as food options change, energy and sodium intake may also shift. Understanding whether and how restaurant menus evolve in response to labeling laws and public health pressures could inform future efforts to improve the food environment.

      Objectives

      To track changes in the energy and sodium content of US chain restaurant main entrées between spring 2010 (when the Affordable Care Act was passed, which included a federal menu labeling requirement) and spring 2011.

      Design

      Nutrition information was collected from top US chain restaurants' websites, comprising 213 unique brands. Descriptive statistics and regression analysis evaluated change across main entrées overall and compared entrées that were added, removed, and unchanged. Tests of means and proportions were conducted for individual restaurant brands to see how many made significant changes. Separate analyses were conducted for children's menus.

      Results

      Mean energy and sodium did not change significantly overall, although mean sodium was 70 mg lower across all restaurants in added vs removed menu items at the 75th percentile. Changes were specific to restaurant brands or service model: family-style restaurants reduced sodium among higher-sodium entrées at the 75th percentile, but not on average, and entrées still far exceeded recommended limits. Fast-food restaurants decreased mean energy in children's menu entrées by 40 kcal. A few individual restaurant brands made significant changes in energy or sodium, but the vast majority did not, and not all changes were in the healthier direction. Among those brands that did change, there were slightly more brands that reduced energy and sodium compared with those that increased it.

      Conclusions

      Industry marketing and pledges may create a misleading perception that restaurant menus are becoming substantially healthier, but both healthy and unhealthy menu changes can occur simultaneously. Our study found no meaningful changes overall across a 1-year time period. Longer-term studies are needed to track changes over time, particularly after the federal menu labeling law is implemented.

      Keywords

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      Biography

      H. W. Wu is a policy and research analyst, Institute for Population Health Improvement, University of California, Davis, Health System, Sacramento; at the time of the study, she was a doctoral fellow, Pardee RAND Graduate School, Santa Monica, CA.

      Biography

      R. Sturm is a senior economist, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.