Healthy Nutrition: Menu labels don’t influence student food choices

/ July 4th, 2011/ Posted in Nutrition & Diets / No Comments »

Menu labels don’t influence student food choices

Who chooses high-vegetable food options over hamburgers? Not college students, if a study is any guide.

Menu labels on college cafeteria food that highlight the nutritional good and the bad of various meal options make no difference in students’ choices, according to the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The results add to evidence that despite laws in some cities mandating calorie counts on fast-food menus, nutritional information makes little difference to people when they are eating out.

“Although it is important to inform consumers about the nutritional characteristics of the food offered, providing nutrition information in less healthy food environments such as fast-food restaurants is unlikely to alter consumers’ food choices,” wrote Christine Hoefkens and Wim Verbeke, two of the study’s authors, in an email to Reuters health.

The research team, based at Ghent University in Belgium, asked 224 people who regularly ate at two of the university’s cafeterias to log their diets for several days.

Then the researchers put up posters in the cafeterias that rated meals on how healthy they were — zero stars for the least healthy to three stars for the most healthy. Study participants and other diners didn’t know the posters were part of a study.

Labels next to menu items also highlighted whether a meal was high in salt, calories, saturated fats or vegetables.

Six months later, the participants, who were mostly female undergraduates, again logged what they ate for a few days.

Though the researchers predicted the diners would have responded to the posters and made healthier food choices, they found no difference in the number of meals eaten from each star category.

The results were not surprising, said Lisa Harnack, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the study.

“In studies, when you ask people how important nutrition is to them when they’re ordering food from a restaurant menu, it’s far less important than a food price or taste. It’s just not a consideration,” she told Reuters Health.

U.S. cities such as New York and Philadelphia require fast-food chain restaurants to include calorie information on menus, while the health care reform bill passed in 2010 will also require that fast-food restaurants and vending machines include nutritional information.

What was concerning about the college student population was that the cafeteria meals were often their main source of food, Hoefkens and Verbeke said.

But others, such as Gail Kaye, the nutrition program director at Ohio State University, said that menu labels might still work to encourage healthier eating if they were paired with a healthier-leaning menu.

In the Ghent study, for instance, 70 percent of the meals earned zero or one stars, both before and after the labels, with the students’ meal choices mirroring the proportion of offerings in each star category.

McCain Foods Backs Healthy Eating Programme for Children

McCain Foods has announced that it will be working with PhunkyFoods, the award-winning schools healthy lifestyles programme, which helps teachers to give curriculum linked lessons in healthy eating and physical activity to primary age schoolchildren.

The company, which employs around 2,000 people in Britain, joins a consortium of Nestlé and Northern Foods in supporting the Harrogate-based programme which was created seven years ago by nutritional consultancy Purely Nutrition.

Bill Bartlett, Corporate Affairs Director for McCain Foods, said: “We are delighted to provide unbranded support for PhunkyFoods’ mission to help children across the country gain a greater understanding of the importance of healthy eating and active lifestyles.

“Many children have very little understanding of where their food even comes from, let alone its nutritional content and, as a responsible food company, we strongly believe we have an important role to play in changing that.”

Mr Bartlett added: “McCain Foods is fully committed to promoting good nutrition, learning and skills and physical activity. We already support a number of initiatives at a local and national level and we welcome the opportunity to strengthen our support in this area still further.”

There are now more than 1,000 schools in England, including seventy-five near McCain’s main UK sites, using the PhunkyFoods programme which subscribes to the National Curriculum.

The programme teaches children up to 11, which is seen as the critical age, healthy lifestyle messages through art, drama, music, play and hands-on food experience.

PhunkyFoods managing director Sorrell Fearnall said she was delighted that PhunkyFoods now had the support of a company as influential as McCain which clearly believed in the values of the programme.

“PhunkyFoods is now supported by a powerful food industry consortium and this will enable the programme to be developed and delivered cost effectively,” she said. “This innovative partnership approach to our work and to delivering public health messages is closely aligned with the Prime Minister’s Big Society values. It is also in tune with Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s Responsibility Deal between government and industry to make food sold to the public healthier.”

Ms Fearnall added: “Given the severity of the obesity epidemic the PhunkyFoods programme offers an effective solution and could be rolled out to all primary schools in England. Our vision is for all 16,970 primary schools to be running the programme by 2013.”

EU researchers revolted as EFSA clears health claims vault

The European Food Safety Authority last week delivered the fifth batch of article 13, general function health claims bringing the total assessed to 2723. There are just 35 to go – to be published next month in a final mini-batch that will conclude the task begun in August 2008.

The Parma-based agency is no doubt slapping itself on the back for completing an exhaustive and gargantuan task but industry and academia would prefer slapping the face of EFSA’s health claim panelists that have for the best part of three years relentlessly rejected so much nutrition science.

As the negative opinions piled up, along with the more specific claims in article 13.5 (emerging and proprietary science) and article 14 (children’s development and disease risk factor reduction) these same academics, NGOs and industry stakeholders politely disagreed with EFSA’s conclusions among each other, at conferences, in the press and via official channels established by the nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR).

When these gained no traction with EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), the tone became more antagonistic, letters were fired off to MEPs and European Commission figures, the annoyance and frustration palpable when the NDA hosted rare public meetings.

Academics formed groups like the gut health scientists that have banded together ( ) to protest the treatment of pre- and probiotic submissions, and are learning that lobbying is not something scientists can afford to ignore in the European nutrition science environment.

A first class organisation (not)

But in the face of a scientific agency that has made it made blatantly clear that its pharma-style approach to nutrition science is not going to change one iota, battered academics and business folk are throwing their hands in the air and the gallows-humour is emerging.

Take this highly ironic missive from prominent probiotic researcher, Glenn Gibson, PhD, from Reading University in the UK.

“I am sure that EFSA are a first class organisation who know exactly what they are doing by putting the science first. I have to admire their stance in protecting consumers by trying to ensure that all valid pro and prebiotic products will disappear from Europe within a few years.”

Or this from Gregor Reid, PhD, the Canada-based researcher who has spent more than 20 years researching the ability of probiotics to benefit vaginal health, who was stunned last week when EFSA concluded vaginal health was not a nutrition matter.

“I have sent the EFSA committee a picture of the female anatomy. It seems they are unaware of the vagina’s location. Next, they will receive a large sack of mail, actually close to one billion letters. They will believe it’s fan mail and get excited for the first time in five years, but it will be from women who suffer from vaginal and bladder infections, letting them appreciate the failings of drugs, diagnostics and management practices approved by EFSA’s drug colleagues.”


Professor Reid, like a lot of researchers in the area has reached his tether, and no amount of consoling from the NDA about how the experts on the panel are bound by the regulation, and that research is one thing, but panel opinions are another is going to change that.

In the meantime, as the conspiracy theories grow about hidden agendas especially in the absence of a single minority opinion among all those 1000s of opinions, the NHCR’s effect among European healthy foods, ingredients and supplements purveyors comes into view.

“We’re off to Asia,” the owner of a promising French fruit extract firm told NutraIngredients at a recent conference, as he left the hall where an NDA panellist was telling attendees about the NDA’s approach to guarantee only strong claims made it to market.

“We give up on Europe.”

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