It’s difficult to make healthy choices when eating out, not least because we often underestimate the amount of energy in restaurant meals. It would be far simpler if nutrition information was provided on menus. Studies show that a significant proportion of consumers use nutrition information to make healthier choices. More than a third of New York City customers who saw nutrition information in Subway fast-food outlets altered their food choices: they bought a meal that contained on average 99 fewer calories than those who either didn’t see the information or chose not to act on it. In New Zealand, Subway recently announced it is introducing new nutritional tips directly in front of customers on its sandwich units.
A 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at six full-service restaurants in the state of Washington that had added nutrition information to their menus: 71% of patrons saw the information; 20.4% ordered a meal with (on average 75) fewer calories; and 16.5% ordered meals lower in fat.
Many fast-food outlets in New Zealand have nutrition information available, but unfortunately fewer than 1% of them provide this information at the point of purchase, according to a 2012 study by a University of Auckland research team published in the online journal Appetite. The researchers pointed out that nutrition information is unlikely to influence purchasing decisions if it isn’t present at the point of purchase.
It’s great that Burger King New Zealand recently released a range of healthier menu items and a nutrition information brochure, says Helen Eyles, co-author of the New Zealand study, but nutrition information should be easily visible – ideally on the menu board. At the very least, the nutrition pamphlets should be at each counter where customers can see them.
But changing the menu boards in every Burger King restaurant in New Zealand is an expensive undertaking, says the company’s marketing director, Rachael Allison; she says there is no clear consensus on how nutrition information should be presented to customers and consequently there are no plans to replace them.
In lieu of readily available nutrition information, estimating the energy density of food is a good method for making healthier choices. Energy density (ED) is a measure of the amount of energy (kilojoules) contained in a specific weight of food (usually 100 grams). Bite-for-bite, foods with a high ED contain more energy than lower ED foods. We eat about the same volume of food each day, so choosing predominantly lower ED foods will promote healthy weight maintenance and optimise long-term health.
Fat and water content are the main influences on food’s ED, according to the World Cancer Research Fund’s recently released pamphlet. Water adds bulk without energy; fat does the opposite, contributing about twice as many kilojoules per gram as carbohydrates and protein. High ED foods are usually highly processed, low in water and fibre, and high in fat or sugar. Examples are fast and fried foods, sausages, potato chips, sweets, cakes, biscuits, mayonnaise and spreads. They contain about 940-1150kJ per 100 grams.
Low ED foods typically contain more water and/or fibre, and/or less fat. For example, fruits and vegetables are low in fat, high in water and a good source of fibre and consequently have a lower ED; as do brown rice, wholemeal pasta, lentils and beans.
In last week’s column, I provided a list of strategies for healthier eating out. These help because:
- lightly dressed salads and non-creamy soups are high in water and fibre, and low in fat, so are a lower ED option;
- wholegrains, pulses, vegetables and fruits add water and fibre to a meal and reduce ED;
- using less oil, butter and mayonnaise lowers the fat content – and therefore the ED – of a meal without changing the portion size;
- choosing lower-fat dairy products (eg, a low-fat latte) and trimming fat from meat reduces the fat content and ED;
- choosing baked, grilled, poached or steamed, rather than fried, meals will reduce the fat content and ED of a meal – for example, choose a baked potato instead of French fries.
Finally, if you do choose a high ED food – hummus or a hamburger, for example – keep the portion size small.
Email: email@example.com, or write to “Nutrition”, c/0 Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.