April 5, 2011

The results from a University of Kentucky survey shows that Kentuckians will likely benefit when the new calorie labels appear on chain restaurant menus.

The menu labeling requirements are part of the Affordable Health Care Act Congress passed in March 2010. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release the final regulation on calories in menu labeling this spring.

Janet Mullins, associate extension professor in UK’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science , surveyed nearly 1,000 dieticians, family and consumer sciences extension agents, health educators and menu labeling advocates testing their ability to correctly identify the menu item with the fewest calories. She found that at least half of these individuals could not choose the lowest calorie item from the menus of several fast food restaurants.

“We obviously can’t tell which menu items are the lowest in calories ourselves, so that’s why menu labeling is needed,” said Mullins who works in the UK School of Human Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture .

Several factors play into an item’s calorie count including preparation method, amount of fat or oil used and portion size.

“Making the wrong decision when looking for the lowest calorie item could easily lead to an additional pound of body fat each year,” she said.

It takes only 3,500 calories to gain one pound of body fat.

She added that since about 40 percent of Kentuckians’ food budgets are spent for meals outside the home and the state has a high rate of childhood and adult obesity, menu labeling could help those who want to lose weight make lower calorie choices.

“I think people will be shocked to find out which items are the lower calorie ones at some restaurants,” Mullins said. “I hope this legislation also encourages quick-serve companies to develop lower calorie items. Higher calorie items, like cole slaw, could be lower in calories if they were made with a different recipe.”

The UK survey was funded in part by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.