Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of food consumed outside the home has increased. Presently in Canada, on any given day, 17.7 million people (approximately half of the population), visit 80,800 food-service establishments. Eating outside the home has been associated with increased caloric intake, as well as increased risk for insulin resistance and obesity. To address this issue, mandatory calorie labelling on menus is a policy option that is being explored. Mandatory calorie labelling on menus, menu boards and drive-through displays in major chain restaurants was first introduced in New York City in 2006 and implemented in 2008. In 2010, calorie labelling was also included in US Health Reform legislation (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), and in May 2015, the first menu labelling legislation was passed in Canada at Queen’s Park, taking effect in January 2017 by posting calories on menus and menu boards of top chains in Ontario. New York City further introduced sodium labelling on menus through salt shaker logos, passed unanimously in September 2015.
OUR RESEARCH GOALS
Our main research goals are to:
- evaluate the nutritional quality of foods served in Canadian chain restaurants by analyzing the levels of calories, sodium, trans fat and sugar, among other nutrients;
- monitor how these levels are changing over time (thus holding restaurants accountable to their commitments to improve the nutritional quality of their menus);
- evaluate public health policies that aim to help consumers make healthier choices when they’re dining-out, like menu-labelling.
Our research to date has demonstrated unacceptably high levels of calories and sodium in Canadian chain restaurant foods. Furthermore, when we looked at sodium in restaurant foods over a 3-year time period, we found that few foods are getting better, and some are actually getting worse. We also evaluated added sugars in kids’ meals from restaurants and showed than many meals exceed the World Health Organization’s current recommendations. Our most recent research on this topic has demonstrated unacceptably high levels of calories, fat, and sodium in kids’ meals from chain restaurants.
Importantly, we have used our research to inform key decision makers in Ontario about the benefits and drawbacks of menu labelling. For example, we published research demonstrating the benefit of including sodium in addition to calories on restaurant menus, which was used to inform and support various movements by Toronto Public Health (for example, their Savvy Diner Campaign). Our results were presented before the Toronto Board of Health as well as the Standing Committee on Government at Queen’s Park [click here to view the presentation]. Overall, our findings have been instrumental in informing the current menu-labelling bill that is being implemented in Ontario.
We later conducted an early evaluation of Ontario’s Healthy Menu Choices Act, which saw calories added to menus in 2017. This paper showed that the introduction of caloric labeling did not lead to immediate reductions in the mean energy content of menu items, and suggests either more time or more action will be needed to see to more positive change. However, our study examining the impact of adding signage promoting healthy eating in a cafeteria setting, including signs encouraging fruit and vegetable consumption and displaying the energy content of sugar-sweetened beverages through physical activity.