Ontario government to mandate calorie labeling in restaurants

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

The word is that the Ontario government will soon announce that they will mandate large chain restaurants to include calorie information on their menus.  Similar labeling requirements already exist in some US states and cities, but this will be the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

Let me first say that I support this move.  Personally speaking, knowing the nutritional information of what I’m about to order absolutely impacts my purchasing decisions.  As a dietitian, I think that providing consumers with more information about the food they eat is a good thing.  I’d like to believe that when the public has a better appreciation for how bad some restaurant food can be, they will make better choices.  I also feel that legislation like this has the potential to create social pressure on corporations to make their recipes a little healthier.  Will this move alone solve the obesity epidemic?  Of course not.  But it’s one more tool that governments can use to tackle this problem.

Opponents will argue that this type of information is already available. And that’s true. Currently fast food outlets are already required to provide comprehensive nutrition information on site.  Many restaurants meet this requirement by making brochures or posters available near the ordering counter.  They also post nutritional information on their websites.  The problem is that this information is easily missed by patrons for various reasons (ie. hard to find, small print, don’t have time to access the web, etc…).  Putting this information directly on the menu makes it impossible to miss.  It’s now in your face.  It may not alter everyone’s menu decisions, but at least now people shouldn’t be able to say they didn’t know they weren’t making a great choice.

That said, I will admit that my enthusiasm for such a move is tempered somewhat.

Studies have shown that while public support for restaurants providing point-of-purchase nutrition information is strong (Mah et al 2013), the data is somewhat mixed on whether it’s actually effective in reducing caloric consumption.  Interestingly two separate studies from last year examined the impact of calorie labeling in Philadelphia fast food restaurants and showed opposite results – one showed that it lowered the total calories purchased (Auchincloss et al 2013) and  the other showed it had no impact (Elbel et al 2013).  I think it’s fair to say that more research is needed to determine how much of an impact (if any) calorie labeling on menus actually has.

There are questions as to why Ontario’s new legislation will not include additional information like sodium, trans fat and sugar as part of the labeling requirements.  Health Minister Deb Matthews was apparently considering these options, but ultimately decided to wait and “listen to what people had to say”.  Personally, I’m a little disappointed the government decided to go half way here.  At minimum I would have liked to have seen the sodium content listed in addition to calories.  According to a report prepared by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI):

“In a study of menu offerings in nearly 30 Canadian chains, CSPI found that sodium levels in the same menu category within the same restaurants typically varied five-fold and calories varied two-fold. Studies show that people, even dietitians, under-estimate sodium levels in foods to an even greater extent than calories. A teaspoon, even a tablespoon of salt could easily be mixed into a restaurant dish, transforming even healthy fare into a blood vessel pressure-cooker.”

Hyperbole aside, is it true that it can be very difficult to determine how much sodium is in a dish based on how “salty” it tastes.  Many seemingly healthy items can have astonishingly high sodium contents – some entrees easily topping the recommended daily maximum of 2300 mg.

I also have a bit of an issue with the fact that only large chain restaurants are expected to be affected by this legislation.  While I appreciate that the potential costs associated with updating menus and conducting nutrient analysis are not trivial, it just seems again that they’re only partially addressing the issue.  Maybe you give smaller operations a longer lead time to comply?  I know that when my wife and I go out to eat we rarely choose chain restaurants, so we’d personally see little benefit from this new legislation, which is somewhat disappointing.

To summarize, I think its a step in the right direction, but I hope they look at expanding the labeling requirements in the future.  It will be interesting to see if other provinces adopt similar regulations.  I’ll also be keeping an eye out for data evaluating the effectiveness of Ontario’s new legislation.

What do you think?  Would calorie information affect your menu choices?  Are there other nutrients you would like to see included on menus?

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References

Auchincloss AH, Mallya GG, Leonberg BL, Ricchezza A, Glanz K, Schwarz DF. Customer responses to mandatory menu labeling at full-service restaurants. Am J Prev Med. 2013 Dec;45(6):710-9

Elbel B, Mijanovich T, Dixon LB, Abrams C, Weitzman B, Kersh R, Auchincloss AH, Ogedegbe G. Calorie labeling, Fast food purchasing and restaurant visits. Obesity. 2013. Nov; 21(11):2172–2179

Mah CL, Vanderlinden L, Mamatis D, Ansara DL, Levy J, Swimmer L.  Ready for policy? Stakeholder attitudes toward menu labelling in Toronto, Canada. Can J Public Health. 2013 Apr 18;104(3):e229-34.

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2 comments

  1. Pretty Little Grub · February 26, 2014

    I think this is definitely a step in the right direction! I would love to see this come to Alberta. I am sure it will in time. Seeing the calorie content at point of purchase definitely affects my food choices. And even as a Dietitian who is pretty informed on nutrition and calorie amounts, I am still often surprised by the numbers. So seeing that information really puts everything into perspective for me.
    I agree that I wish they would have included sodium as well. Although, for the general population the understanding of milligrams of sodium isn’t always well understood therefore it may not be the most useful information.

    • marcusoneill79 · February 27, 2014

      Thanks for the feedback Pretty Little Grub!…. regarding the sodium, you may be right about people generally having a poorer understanding of it than calories, but I still think it could be quite useful for comparison purposes (ie. Entree A has 1000mg vs.Entree B has 1750mg) People may not get that Entree A is still high, but its pretty obvious which one is a better choice (at least in terms of sodium content). Cheers!

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