A survey conducted at the University of Vermont suggests legislation requiring restaurants to account for the nutritional and caloric content of their food will be ineffective if it is not accompanied by an education campaign.
The Menu Education and Labeling Act, which would require restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to label the nutritional value of menu items, is being considered by the subcommittee on health in the House of Representatives.
"The utility of this new nutrition labeling…rests upon a critical assumption-that people read and comprehend the information on nutrition labels," wrote the authors of the study entitled Consumers may not use or understand calorie labeling in restaurants, published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
"It appears that a large portion of the population isn't interested in having [nutritional information]," said lead researcher Rebecca Krukowski.
Across the study cohorts, between 44 and 57 percent responded that they would not likely use restaurant food caloric information. Two telephone surveys were undertaken - the first targeted 649 Vermont community participants and the second questioned 316 Vermont college students.
The objective of the study was to determine to what extent the sample population read food labels, how skilled they are at analyzing them and whether or not they want nutritional information included on food menus at restaurants.
The survey answers differed between men and women, and also between community residents and college students. A greater proportion of women than men in both samples reported they would use restaurant food labels to look for low calorie foods, while overall a significantly greater proportion of community respondents said they would use restaurant food labels to look for low calorie foods compared to college students.
As for the labeling system already in place for foods in grocery stores, responses revealed a significant number of respondents don't pay attention to them. Fifty-two percent of college students and 33 percent of community participants indicated that they do not read nutritional facts.
In light of both growing waistlines and the increasing amount of household budgets spent on eating out in the US, the Food & Drug Administration has been urging restaurants to join them in the war on obesity. About 64 percent of all US adults are overweight, 30 percent of whom are obese, according to the FDA.
From the late 1990s through to 2004, US households spent approximately 46 percent of their food budgets on meals and snacks consumed outside the home, according to the FDA Working Group on Obesity's 2004 report "Counting Calories".
While the proportion of meals eaten outside the home increases, the nutritional value of these food sources has decreased. Between 1970 and 2002 total calories from food consumed outside the home increased by 18 percent to 32 percent. This food was also lower in fiber, calcium and iron on a per-calorie basis.