New research found that meals at the vast majority of major U.S. chain restaurants do not meet the recommended daily limits put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The “What’s on the Menu?” report conducted by Rand Corporation found that 96 percent of main entrées on adult meals overshot the USDA recommended daily limit in terms of calories, fat, and sodium. The USDA recommends no more than 667 calories, 35 percent of calories from fat, and 767 mg of sodium for a main entrée.

The report found that one in four main entrées exceeds 890 calories. Further, one in four appetizers exceeds 1,145 calories.

The study examined the availability of data on menu offerings at 245 major U.S. restaurant chains and then analyzed the nutrient levels.

Full-service restaurants averaged higher levels of calories, fat, and sodium than the quick-service sector, according to the study. Fast-casual menu items also had significantly higher calorie counts, but not significantly higher amounts of sodium of fat.

“If you think about it, the portion sizes at family-style restaurants are just bigger, so of course it’s higher in calories and sodium and saturated fat,” says Helen W. Wu, who oversaw the study. “It could be the case that the fast food restaurants are more to blame for the obesity epidemic … but just mapping out objectively what’s available on the menu, family-style restaurants tend to be more problematic.”

The report also found that nutrition standards set by restaurant-supported organization Healthy Dining differ from the daily limits recommended by the government.

For example, the USDA recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium in an entire day. The Healthy Dining stamp of approval goes to a single dish with anything up to 2,000 mg of sodium.

“[This] could allow intake of up to 6,000 mg of sodium across three meals—two to six times the USDA RDA (recommended daily amount) for adults,” the study states. “A much larger proportion of main entrees could meet Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell criteria, compared with one-third of the USDA RDA limits, suggesting that restaurant industry-supported criteria are more generous than government-established ones.”

Only 11 percent of children’s menus have fewer than 600 calories and 770 mg of sodium, which are the voluntary criteria set by the National Restaurant Association through Kids LiveWell, according to the study.

Wu says the industry’s primary concern should be addressing sodium levels by slowly reducing the amount in foods.

“If it’s done gradually, over time, then there’s reason to believe that people will not object to the changing taste, because palates adapt based on what they’re accustomed to,” she says.

The “What’s on the Menu?” report also examined the availability of nutritional info at chain restaurants.

“Restaurants that made nutritional information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat, and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request,” the study states. It suggests U.S. restaurants that have fewer outlets or are considered upscale are less likely to report data.

“There were some [restaurant websites] that just had a comment up there and said, ‘We don’t have [nutritional] information here, but you can e-mail us to get it,’” Wu says. “And it does strike me as a little bit odd to create that more of a difficult barrier to getting information.”


Update: The National Restaurant Association disagrees with the claim in RAND Corp.’s study that a larger proportion of restaurant meals meet Kids LiveWell standards than the USDA’s, suggesting Kids LiveWell is more generous than the USDA.

According to the NRA’s director of nutrition, Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., Kids LiveWell formed its standards from the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, which the study was using as a basis of comparison. The discrepancy, Dubost says, may have come from the fact that Kids LiveWell covers all children under 12 and the study divided children’s dietary intake needs by ages 4-8 and 9-13.

“Our goal was to roll something out that could be implemented within the restaurants fairly easily, if you will, but still stay in line with the dietary guidelines,” Dubost says.

She explains that the 2010 dietary guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium for the healthy, active population above two years of age. Since one third of that is 770, Kids LiveWell recommends no more than 770 mg of sodium per meal. The same technique was used to determine calorie and fat levels.

Dubost also says the study used data collected in 2010, so it is not reflective of the present restaurant marketplace.

“I think the data would look really different if they had looked at it right now,” she says. “I realized this was published and they were looking [at it in] retrospect, but I don’t think it reflects what the current market shows.”

By Sonya Chudgar

Consumer Trends, Legal, Menu Innovations, News