'Healthy' Labels On Menu Items Can Be Misleading, According To New Research

Labels shown on restaurant menus claiming that certain items or dishes are "healthy," "organic" or "low-fat" might be misleading, according to new research coming from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The research comes from Megan Mueller, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University, who studied six years of information found on menus from 96 of the top-selling restaurant chains in the U.S. She compared it with figures from the database MenuStat to determine if the data was accurate.

"This study looked at claims on menus to see if so-called healthy items were actually better for you, given that people assume they are," Mueller said in a statement, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What she found was that while an item might be given a healthy label such as "organic," it might be unhealthy in other ways. For example, a dish that is labeled "low-fat" might contain high levels of sodium.

Mueller researched a variety of menu items, including side dishes, main entrees and desserts. According to their label, they fell into one of five categories, which included general health (so-called "healthy" items), health-related ingredients (such as "gluten-free" or containing "whole grain"), nutritional content (including "low-fat" choices), sourcing (which included "organic" or "local" labeling) and vegetarian/vegan.

The findings showed that almost 20 percent of the items were labeled incorrectly, with hidden sugar -- and subsequently, hidden calories -- being the biggest culprit. High levels of sodium were also a concern. Mueller also noted that results were not consistent.

The researcher explained that health claims for restaurants were "not as well-regulated" as they are for packaged items found in grocery stores. She pointed out that restaurants have been exempt from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. While they have been required to label calories since 2018, other health claims are more difficult to prove.

"It's hard to know what's healthy and what's not on restaurant menus, because restaurants don't have to go through the same lab analyses as a packaged food producer would when making certain claims," she explained, citing a lack of regulatory oversight.

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The research suggested that restaurants could be more transparent with customers by working toward making nutritional information more readily available to them so they can make more informed decisions.

The report also explained that further research was needed to understand how -- or if -- consumers utilize the information provided for them on menus.