Menu Labeling as a Potential Strategy for Combating the Obesity Epidemic

Authors: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Completion Date: May 2008

HIA Report: Menu Labeling as a Potential Strategy for Combating the Obesity Epidemic: A Health Impact Assessment

Summary of the HIA

Proposed Policy or Project

Introduced in February of 2008 and signed into law September of the same year, California Senate Bill 1420 would require chain restaurants with fifteen or more outlets in California (changed to 20 or more outlets in subsequent drafts of the bill) to provide nutritional information at the point of purchase. Menu boards would have to display calorie information. Menus would have to display information on calories and nutrient composition, including fat content (total, saturated and trans), carbohydrates, and sodium, for all standard menu items.

Background and Policy Context

The obesity epidemic constitutes one of the most significant public health and economic threats facing Los Angeles County and the nation. Despite the growing interest in menu labeling and the passage of menu labeling ordinances in jurisdictions such as New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco, to date, there have been no major studies to quantify the potential impact of the strategy as proposed in California’s Senate Bill 120 in 2007 (which was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Oct 2007) and the current Senate Bill 1420 (2008).

Scope and Methods

The analysis focused on describing the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Los Angeles County and projecting the effect of the proposed bill on changing these rates. Data on population weight gain data from the California Department of Education Physical Fitness Testing Program and the Los Angeles County Health Survey was used to quantify the obesity rates in Los Angeles County. Projected changes in the prevalence of overweight and obesity were made using both published and unpublished data, including information regarding estimates of the number of meals served annually at large chain restaurants in the county; the percentage of restaurant patrons ordering reduced-calorie meals as a result of menu labeling, and the amount of calorie reductions in response to calorie posting were gathered as well from these sources. The analysis included multiple scenarios of patron response to calorie posting were examined.

Summary of Findings

Researchers determined that calorie postings would result in about 10% of large chain restaurant patrons ordering reduced calorie meals, with an average reduction of 100 calories per meal. Likewise, they determined that menu labeling would prevent about 39% of the 6.75 million pound average annual weight gain in the county population five years of age and older, with even larger impacts expected if more restaurant patrons ordered reduced calorie meals. Their findings suggest that mandated menu labeling at fast food and large chain restaurants could have a significant impact on the obesity epidemic, even with only modest changes in consumer behavior.

Background Reports


Paul Simon, MD, MPH

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