Saint Louis University

BLOG: Menu Labeling: Is it Even Working?

Author: Tara DeWitt
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013

Every Monday from 4 to 6 PM I am privileged in leading a group of volunteers in preparing 148 meals for those battling hunger in the Saint Louis Midtown area. This is made possible by the non-profit organization The Campus Kitchen Project (CKP). The D.C. Central Kitchen is based out of Washington D.C. and has spread to 33 college campuses and high schools across the country so that students may make an impact on hunger relief– and SLU had the first one! As a dietetic culinary student, I can think of no better way to serve the community than doing what I love – cooking delicious and nutritious meals.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship menu labeling

Let me paint you a little picture: The sun is slowly making an appearance over the horizon, the birds are happily chirping away and the alarm clock is ever-so- gently reminding you that you’ve pushed “snooze” five times and if you don’t get out of bed now, you’ll be sorry. As the chaotic morning continues and you scramble to get dressed and look presentable, you simultaneously brew a pot of coffee, inhale a bowl of cereal and throw a few random items in a bag that could resemble some sort of a lunch. When lunchtime rolls around and you’re so hungry you have seriously contemplated chewing off your arm, you realize you forgot your lunch on the counter. Sound familiar?

Packing your lunch is a healthy and fantastic habit to have, but in this day and age where timeliness and efficiency are deemed more crucial than getting your 8 hours of sleep a night, sometimes it’s just not realistic.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship menu labeling

Thankfully, there are alternatives. One suggestion is utilizing a gas station to create a lunch. Sure, those wet-looking hot dogs that have been on the roller since last Friday are quite appetizing, especially when paired with the stale white buns and condiments from a container that has quite possibly never been cleaned since it was opened in 1984. You get my point; some gas stations don’t always provide the highest quality of meals. Fast food could be the prescription for your lunch-forgetting syndrome. Yes I said it, a future Registered Dietitian (RD) said it was OKAY to eat fast food.

All things in moderation, right? Now, I’m not telling you to go to the closest McDonald’s and get a super-sized #13 with an Oreo McFlurry, and a large Coke, providing you with more calories, sodium and fat grams than the average person needs in an entire day. So hear me out. Fast food is moving in the right direction in a few ways. One example is by offering healthier meal options and substitutions (think grilled chicken, apple wedges and whole grain breads.) Another is by displaying calorie content of standardized menu items. It all started in 2008 by the New York City Health Department, making it mandatory for fast food stops with more than 15 locations nationwide to post calorie information of their meal items. Seems effective, right? Well, it is if you understand what the information means. Ten focus groups were conducted at various locations in New York City just to see if the displayed information altered the ordering process for the consumers.

The results went both ways; some consumers had heard about the menu labels but did not use them to guide their meal choices, and some reported the new information veered them towards a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a double cheeseburger. Not understanding the meaning of a calorie or the impact it has on your health was a major barrier indicated from the focus groups; which relatively defeats the entire purpose of displaying the nutrition label.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship menu labeling

So, where do we go from here? I, for one, fully support any and all restaurants that are willing to display the nutrition facts about the food being served. Does it sway my selections? You bet it does. As I wandered into St. Louis Bread Company the other weekend with a hankering for a bread bowl filled with delicious Black Bean Soup, I took note of the calorie information displayed to the right of the bread bowls on the menu and it read: 660 calories and 25 grams of fat. Now, that’s not anything to write home about, but that is just the bread bowl. Tally on that cup of soup with an apple on the side and we, my friends, have us a nice little 1,000-calorie lunch. Yeah, I know, it surprised me, too. Needless to say, I edited my order and settled on a slightly lighter combination for my lunch. But what about everyone else; those that are blessed with the ignorance of not visualizing the process the body undergoes once one bite of food enters the mouth and the digestive process is initiated?

There are a few general concepts that have been thrown around, my favorite is to establish educational or media campaigns about nutrition so the general population could be enlightened of what exactly a calorie is and what all of this jargon on the menu boards actually means. Utilizing symbols, making certain foods color-coded or creating an entirely separate menu for the healthier meal items are some tools that could be helpful. More research needs to be conducted on how the menu labeling can be more readily used, much like nearly every other new concept in the nutrition world. I, for one, am optimistic on the menu labeling, and with a few helpful tools and some promising media influence, a greater percentage of the population will at least be more aware of the calorie content of their meals, which may help decrease this little obesity epidemic our nation is juggling with.

That being said, I leave you with a challenge. Next time you pull in to the drive through or place an order at your favorite fast food restaurant, be like this guy and take a glance at the nutrition facts displayed on the menu board. Take your time looking at each menu item and fully grasp how many calories are in your favorite items or joke with your co-worker that the #5 is diabetes served in a paper bag with a side of heart disease with whipped cream on top. The information is there for your use and knowledge; the New York City Health Department wasn’t just displaying the information to make the boards prettier.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship menu labeling


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