‘Healthy’ menu items might not be better for you, researcher finds

Resolving to eat healthier in the new year? Anya Guy, a clinical dietitian at Mayo Clinic in Florida, offers nutritional advice on what order when dining out to the hidden fats in avocados. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Items labeled as as “healthy,” “organic” or “low-fat” on restaurant menus might not be as good for you as you thought, a Colorado State University researcher finds.

Megan Mueller, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, examined six years of menu data from 96 of the largest grossing restaurant chains.

She used a database compiled between 2012 and 2018 as part of MenuStat, a searchable website created by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with funding from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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 from the university. “If you have cardiovascular issues, for instance, choosing menu items based on these claims might not be reliable, because they may be higher in sodium or saturated fat than other items.”

Prior to the study, she hypothesized that despite menu descriptions of an item’s healthiness, there would be hidden nutritional drawbacks in calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

Health claims “are not as well-regulated for restaurants as they are for packaged items in grocery stores,” Mueller explained, noting that restaurants were exempt from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, and federal requirements on restaurant calorie labeling didn’t go into effect until 2018. “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. There isn’t as much regulatory oversight in the restaurant setting.”

She analyzed side dishes, main items and desserts that fell into one of five categories: general health (items labeled as “healthy,” for example), health-related ingredient (as in “gluten free” or “whole grain”), nutrition content (“low fat”), product sourcing (“organic,” “artisanal” or “local”) and vegetarian/vegan.

She then compared them to the nutritional value of similar menu items with no health claims.

Although some main dishes had significantly more hidden calories than main dishes without health claims, some “healthy” menu items were more likely to have hidden sugar or sodium levels, she found. But the results weren’t consistent across the board.

“Hidden sugars in side dishes seemed to be the biggest culprit,” Mueller said, “followed closely by hidden sugars in main dishes. A significant amount of hidden sodium was identified in desserts labeled as vegan or vegetarian, and main dishes with a product sourcing claim had significantly more calories than items with no health claims. While there were some dishes with health claims that had lower amounts of saturated fat, most items with health claims were still high in saturated fat (with more than 10% of their calories coming from saturated fats).”

Generally speaking, she explained, it’s healthier to have a home-cooked meal than a restaurant meal.

Mueller’s study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.