Major restaurant chains have been required since 2018 to post calorie labels on menus. The result, according to a Tufts University study, is a reduction in cancer deaths.
The findings published this week in the journal BMJ Open found that Americans are consuming between 20 and 60 fewer calories per meal out. Although the study’s authors noted the relatively small number, they estimate that this has prevented 28,000 obesity-related cancer cases and 16,700 cancer deaths.
The reduction in cancer cases has saved Americans $2.8 billion in health care and societal costs, the Tufts University authors wrote.
One reason for the relatively large impact is due to how much Americans eat out. Researchers said that restaurant meals account for nearly 1 in 5 calories consumed by adults. Meals at restaurants are often higher in calories, added sugars and saturated fats, the authors said.
“It’s important for us to continue to show consumers, policymakers, and industry how small changes can lead to big benefits,” says lead author Mengxi Du. “Our population-level view suggests that these labels can be associated with substantial health gains and cancer-related health care cost savings that could be doubled with additional industry response, such as by replacing high-calorie menu items with lower-calorie options or reformulating recipes.”
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Although some are paying attention to calorie labels, researchers say more needs to be done to ensure everyone fully understands these labels.
“People with higher education or income levels are aware of the information in menu labels and how to understand it, but we need to put some effort into education among underrepresented, low-income, or at-risk communities because we still see some disparities,” says Du. “I think people would like to see calorie numbers when they go to a restaurant — even if menus don’t provide comprehensive nutrition information, it helps us all make quick calculations about the food we’re about to purchase.”
In addition to requiring calorie labels on menus, restaurants with 20 or more locations are required to provide information on total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and protein on request.
The transparency surrounding calorie labeling may also be having an impact on what is served at restaurants. According to a 2022 Harvard analysis, new menu items have 25% fewer calories than items introduced previously.
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