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.