Food & Fitness

Mandatory nutrition labels on restaurant menus: yay or nay?

wine glass

Eating local doesn't always mean low-calorie.

How many times have you gone into a restaurant and ordered a meal that sounds reasonably healthy, only to check the nutrition information online afterwards and discovered that you consumed over 1,500 calories within the space of a couple hours?

One problem with deciphering restaurant menus is that there are no regulations on phrases that restaurants can and cannot use on their menus. Everything from “lightly sauteed,” “grilled” and “baked” can have healthy implications… but do they mean that the meal is implicitly healthy?

Most restaurants use liberal amounts of oil, butter and salt in their recipes in order to make them particularly palatable to the taste buds. These ingredients can be added anywhere along the line of cooking. For example, an appetizer might say that it is baked, but if it’s cheese stuffed inside pastry, it’s likely going to be very high in fat and calories. Just because an item is grilled, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been brushed generously with oil. Restaurant portion sizes tend to also be two to four times the size as an actual serving size, contributing to even more calories.

buttery pastry

Just how many fat grams are in that pastry, anyway?

Appetizers in some chain restaurants have been known to run upwards of 1,200 calories a piece. Add on an entree, a dessert, and a fancy beverage, and you could easily consume anywhere between 1,500 calories and 3,500. The average person needs no more than 2,000 calories in a single day.

It gets trickier if you choose to avoid chain restaurants and instead frequent local restaurants. These establishments often use ingredients that are local and generally healthier, but their nutrition information is not listed online, especially since their recipes often vary on a daily basis.

Including a nutrition facts table for every item on a restaurant menu should be mandatory so that consumers can walk into restaurants and make a healthy choice based on the information provided to them. Even to the educated consumer, it can take a lot of guess work to determine if their meal has 400 or 1,400 calories in it. Chain restaurants are able to include nutrition information on their website and it therefore should be a simple matter to include it on the menu, even as just a single line depicting calories, fat, protein content etc. For local restaurants, there are ways to determine the nutrition content of the food, such as visiting the Dietitians of Canada website and their Recipe Analyzer. Ingredients and secret recipes could thus be protected; only the nutrition facts table information would be provided.

How do you feel about restaurants and nutrition information? Does it frustrate you that this information is unavailable at the restaurant? Would it bother you if it were on every menu? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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    1. Sagan Morrow

      They won’t be accurate, no – but at least it would give people a general idea, yes? They might think their salad is only 200 calories and be shocked to discover it’s 700 calories – even if it’s off by a few hundred, I think it would still be an eye-opener!

  2. Jody - Fit at 53

    In California, if a restaurant has a certain amount of locations, it is mandatory. I like it. I look at it even though I seldom eat out & usually sitting their with others & bring my own stuff! 😉 I do agree with DR. J that they are not always accurate so I do take them with a grain of salt but better than nothing…

  3. Mary Anne in Kentucky

    Calories are of no interest to me. What I care about is the ingredients. Am I allergic to the oil they’re using today? Is it the same as they used yesterday? Unless it’s a chain, an ingredients list printed earlier isn’t likely to be perfectly accurate. Chefs make substitutions if what’s available at market is not as good as expected. They have sudden creative inspirations.

  4. clare


    Second, I disagree that this should be mandatory. Since when is it mandatory to eat at a restaurant? It is a choice. If a restaurant wants to list this information, GREAT. I apprecaite it a lot actually and may eat there. If they don’t list, I just won’t eat there. That is their choice, and mine. Why should they be FORCED to make this listing?

    I choose to not eat at restaurants. The only way I really know my food is if I make it myself.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      But the thing is that I love going out to local restaurants that use organic ingredients and the like, and it would be nice to know what I’m eating. No, it’s not mandatory to eat in a restaurant, but is can be such a pleasure to have the experience of going out for a nice meal and supporting a small local business.

      I think they should be “forced” to list the nutrition content because it really is a fundamental right for everyone to know what is in their food. And even when we make food ourselves, I don’t think we necessarily DO know what’s really in it. We don’t know if it’s genetically modified, for example. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the food we eat, even if we’re buying the most basic of ingredients to create everything from scratch.

      1. clare

        It is a fundamental right to know what is in your food, but not a fundamental right to eat at a restaurant. This is not the role of government. Restaurant food is not a basic need or a right. It is something you desire, a preference, a want. Just as you suggested, “it can be such a pleasure to have the experience of going out for a nice meal and supporting a small local business.” That’s great, but why should I have to pay for it via tax subsidies and whatever else it entails for the government to force and enforce this? You say it is supporting local businesses, but think about the added costs and work these businesses would be FORCED into with this? It is one thing for the franchises to list their nutrition info…it is all cookie cutter and standardized, but really? Small local restaurants? Where things are less likely to be made on “templates” from “corporate headquarters?” Not easy to calculate every nutrition fact there, I’d say.

        I love ya Sagan, but it is a little selfish in my opinion to view this as a “right” that “big daddy government” should provide for you. And I appreciate this conversation friend!

  5. Jill

    I think this should be a choice of the business owner based on their customer’s demand. Chain restaurants have the money to employ someone to do the research…a local restaurant may not be able to afford such a mandate.

    And here in Wisconsin, we have one of the highest obesity rates in the States. Many restaurants post the nutrition info in the menus or on wall posters – – and Wisconsinite still overeat or eat even when it’s clearly bad.

    I agree with MaryAnn – I’d much rather know the ingredients used (organic vs. not, hydrogenated oil vs. heart healthy oil, fresh fish vs. flash frozen). Local restaurants in my part of Wisconsin are VERY good about describing the source of their ingredients. Thank goodness!

  6. John

    Interesting idea. Should resturants be forced to give nutritional information? I’d say no, because the cost for every new dish could get excessive.

    However, it doesn’t cost that much to do a simple energy test using a bomb calorometer and some oxygen. Weigh a sample meal, mash it up, dry it, put it in the bomb calorometer with an oxygen atmosphere, and within seconds you have the results.

    If you did this, inexpensively, you’d get an accurate number that you could promote next to the majority of your dishes. I guess chefs get bored cooking the same meal, and want variety too. Skip the one off meals, and if something has been on the menu for a couple of months, work out its energy value.

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