The debate over menu labeling at the restaurant level is gaining volume as the public at large seems to be pleading for help in the fight against obesity which remains an epidemic nationwide and has aggressively moved into the offspring of America’s baby boomer generation. Obesity rates among children and teenagers have tripled over the past 20 years, raising havoc with health care costs, which is one of the most visible issues in the upcoming presidential election.

California represents the latest in the movement to require menu labeling with the California Restaurant Association and Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Bakersfield, throwing support behind a menu labeling ordinance that provides flexibility in how restaurants display nutritional information. The bill specifically lists menus, food packaging, table tents, tray liners, posters, brochures, and electronic kiosks as acceptable means for posting data.

A Dallas-based technology company, TableTop Media, debuted its new table top kiosk at FS/Tec in April, initially downplaying its menu labeling solution in lieu of the device’s other innovative functionality–pay-on-demand, infotainment, promotional capabilities, real-time feedback, and even its eco-advantages in reducing millions of printed receipts and printed table top materials that would be eliminated with the wireless kiosk. However, the noise around menu labeling has become so loud in various counties and states across the country that TableTop Media wants legislators to know they have a solution that offers restaurants a flexible platform for fulfilling any changes in future legislation.

John Whipple, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, writes in a recent industry column, “providing [nutritional] information in a comprehensive and consistent manner is good for [the restaurant industry] and consumers. Unfortunately, jurisdictions at the local level are adopting proposals that are applicable only within those jurisdictions, and our members are seriously concerned they’ll end up with a crazy quilt pattern of laws and regulations.”

TableTop Media’s wireless, touch screen kiosk offers restaurants greater flexibility in displaying menu labeling via digital display and allows consumers a transparent means of understanding caloric, fat, sugar, sodium, protein, and carbohydrate information which benefits healthy consumers as well as those struggling with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other health-related conditions affected by diet. The solution’s dynamic interface allows restaurants to feature menu items in full graphics and video, with nutritional information, on every table. The solution is centrally controlled through a wireless network, allowing for easy changes to the content, and the capability of displaying different content by city, county or state, depending on the regulations. Restaurants also have the ability to highlight healthier menu choices and provide tips for ordering items with less fat or sodium or sugar so that they meet a heart healthy or low sodium diet. Guests may also email or print the nutritional information for their personal reference.

After years of debate and discussion regarding the ill effects of trans fats, the man-made fats found in partially hydrogenated oils, the US Food and Drug Administration along with Health Canada, began requiring the disclosure of trans fats on all nutrition labels since January 1, 2006. The U.S. and Canada remain the only two countries to have enacted such requirements. The disclosure has resulted in a better informed marketplace among restaurant owners, chefs, grocers, packaged goods manufacturers, and consumers.

“We purposefully focused our technology on offerings that are designed to strengthen the relationship between the restaurateur and the customers through a suite of digital interactive experiences–infotainment, online retail shopping, gaming, entertainment ticket purchasing, pay-on-demand convenience,” explains Shawn Gentry, COO and president of TableTop Media. “The restaurant reaps the benefits of higher check averages, real-time feedback, and server efficiencies which thus far have translated into higher gratuities and a happier workforce. We see the nutritional transparency component as a value-add feature of the overall solution and a way for national restaurant companies to get out in front of pending legislation that will ultimately have them scrambling across multiple regions of the country at various times as legislation takes place, state by state or county by county.”

A study last year revealed that two-thirds of Californians failed a nutrition quiz on fast food. “I have a doctorate in public health, and I failed this quiz,” says Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, who commissioned the poll. “And common sense does not help either.” A Facebook survey conducted this month asked if restaurants should display nutritional information if enabling technology existed today. 85 percent agreed or strongly agreed they should. Sixty-one percent of all consumers, 72 percent of female consumers, expressed some level of concern about nutrition in restaurants today.

“As a seasoned restaurateur, I recognize and appreciate the concern regarding menu labeling in restaurants,” explains Mary Russon, president of Food, Friends and Company. “It’s an expensive proposition for individual restaurant owners, in particular, to pull nutritionals and then communicate them throughout the restaurant–menu boards, traditional table tops, printed menus. That’s why we embraced the new table top technology from TableTop Media because it offers restaurants like ours, and particularly national chains, an innovative and scalable way to meet any future state or county requirements while also appealing to the consumer’s growing interests in nutritional transparency.”