Canadians spend around $60 billion annually on restaurant meals, which represents about 30% of their food budget. Since nutritional information on restaurant menus is extremely rare and often tucked away in hard to find places (online or in a book behind the counter somewhere that you need to ask to see), Canadians trying to decide what to eat at a restaurant are ordering blind from a nutritional perspective.
Now, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), along with more than a dozen Canadian health groups and experts, is calling for mandatory nutritional information on restaurant menus. They say that nutrition-related illnesses, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers cost the Canadian economy between $7 billion and $30 billion and kill 48,000 Canadians every year and that this could be much reduced if Canadians had the information they needed to make better choices.
The CSPI report, Writing on the Wall, compared the two lowest-calorie and highest-calorie items in fourteen different food categories at a variety of chain restaurants in Canada and also looked at sodium levels. Some of the shocking findings include:
- Steak please! Across most of the restaurant menus, the steak (e.g. Sirloin, New York, Tenderloin, etc.) has less than 1/5 of the calories and less than 1/10 of the sodium that is found in a rack of ribs.
- Wrap it: The Pickle Barrel’s Tuna Sandwich (960 calories) has almost five times as many calories as its Tuna Wrap (200 calories).
- Alfredo sauce miles better than cheese pizza? Alfredo sauce is often considered the thing to avoid in restaurants if you want a health choice. at Montana’s, however, the kids pasta with alfredo sauce has only 1/4 of the sodium found in the cheese pizza and 1/5 of the sodium in the junior beef burger and a lot less calories too.
- Cut the sausage: Tim Horton’s Sausage, Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich (530 calories) has nearly twice as many calories as the English Muffing with Egg and Cheese (280 calories).
- Salty burger: McDonald’s Angus Bacon and Cheese Sandwich has nearly three times the sodium in the Big Xtra Sandwich.
- Hell for your heart: East Side Mario’s Hell’s Kitchen Chicken has two days worth of sodium! (3,220 mg).
CPSI is calling on local, provincial and federal governments to make regulatory changes that would give consumers the information they need to make better nutritional choices. This includes:
- Indicating the number of calories
- Using symbols to flag foods with high levels of sodium
- Providing free brochures with all nutritional information, especially saturated fat and trans fat
- Providing nutritional information to a publicly accessible government database that would assist with monitoring of sodium levels in foods
They do, however, suggest that there be an exemption for small restaurants (less than $10 million in annual sales or fewer than 10 outlets) and for menu items that are on the menu for short periods of time (such as weekly specials), although they would still be encouraged to voluntarily provide nutritional information.
The proposal certainly is a positive one and would help those Canadians who eat a lot at large chains. But for consumers who prefer to support local small businesses, would this make any difference? There are a number of possible consequences for small restaurants and their patrons if this proposal moves ahead:
- Consumers could be driven away from smaller restaurants in favor of the chains that provide full information;
- Small restaurants could be forced to provide the nutritional information in order to remain competitive with larger chains that have this information; or,
- Consumers frequenting small businesses could continue to have to make potentially unwise food choices because of a lack of information.
What do you think of the proposal? Is it a positive one? Should small businesses be required to participate too? Would having nutritional information influence your decision about where to eat and what to order?
Photo credit: dmott9 on flickr