An independent survey by the University of Maryland Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program shows that Montgomery County’s effort to place nutritional information on menus at larger chain restaurants is making a significant impact on the food choices of diners who read the information before ordering. The survey shows that women were more likely than men to use the information, but alarmingly, not one person surveyed between the ages of 18-24 said they considered the nutritional information before ordering.
The County Council in 2009 approved Bill 19-07, whose chief sponsor was Councilmember George Leventhal, the chair of the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. Montgomery County was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to pass such legislation, which went into effect on July 1, 2010. Full compliance was expected by Jan. 1, 2011, and is regulated by the County’s Licensing and Regulatory Services.
The bill requires an establishment with at least 20 national locations that offer the same type of menu at each location to post information on calories on the menu or menu board for any standardized menu item. Establishments are required to provide calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total and complex carbohydrates, cholesterol, sugar, fiber and protein for any standardized menu item in writing on request.
For food in self-service facilities, such as salad bars and buffet lines, the bill requires the establishment to post calorie information for a standard serving size on a tag next to the item.
“In just a short time since this measure went into effect, this survey shows that about one-third of all diners are using the new information available to make healthier food choices, and it clearly shows that our efforts are making a difference,” said Councilmember Leventhal. “I think we are all disappointed by the survey’s results regarding young people not even considering the health aspects of what they are eating. There is a national effort, and a very strong one in Montgomery County, to fight obesity in young people so that they do not have increased health problems as adults. This survey shows us we have considerable work to do on this level.”
From February through May of this year, the University of Maryland Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) surveyed customers in 23 restaurants (each of which were in compliance with the law) in various communities around the County to determine the impact of the legislation. A total of 129 customers were interviewed—66 (51 percent) male and 63 (49 percent) female. Ages ranged from 18-79 and most customers interviewed spoke English at home (67 percent). Nearly 19 percent spoke Spanish.
The survey showed that 32 percent of customers surveyed read the nutrition information available in the restaurants. Of those, 39 of the 41 reported that the nutritional information influenced their meal choices, with 67 percent stating they used only calorie information. Others stated they used fat content and sodium content to make their selections.
Reasons for not using the nutrition information varied, with 59 percent of those surveyed stating they already knew what they wanted to order and 19 percent saying that the nutrition information was not important in their decision. Three customers stated they wanted to indulge so they ignored the information. Seventeen of those surveyed said they did not use the nutrition information because they did not see it at the time they ordered their food.
Women were more likely to read the nutrition information (41 percent of all surveyed) compared to men (23 percent). Customers ages 25-39 were most likely to report reading the information to decide what to order, with 64 percent in this age group reading the information. Of the 19 customers surveyed ages 18-24, none stated that they had read the nutrition information before deciding what to order.
The survey report said it found another unexpected result. “A surprising finding was that greater use of the nutrition information was reported by those who frequent the restaurant daily (50 percent) than by those who frequent the restaurant weekly (26 percent), monthly (23 percent), or less (47 percent),” said the report. “Only 38 percent of customers who stated it was their first visit to the restaurant reported using the nutrition information.”
The instrument and methodology of the survey was developed for EFNEP by Mira Mehta and Linda Ashburn. Kavitha Sankavaram, Krizia Fernandez and David McHale also contributed to the survey and helped establish its results. Carol Garvey, co-chair of the Obesity Work Group, also provided support for the study.