Sunday, December 31, 2006

How good is online restaurant nutrition information?

The NYC Board of Health decided recently to require calorie labeling prominently on menus and menu boards for some restaurants. Some readers might have overlooked this policy in the media coverage of the Board's simultaneous ban on trans fats in restaurants (see earlier post), but the labeling rule may in fact be more important.

A curious feature of the new labeling rule is that it seems to apply only to restaurants that already make calorie information available, and not to restaurants that currently fail to provide nutrition information online. Clearly, the Board's purpose was to address chain restaurants with standardized products, because these chains clearly know the nutrition characteristics of their products and will have a comparatively easy time posting the information. Still, it would be ironic to allow restaurants to evade the menu labeling rule simply by refusing to provide nutrition information elsewhere as well.

This raises the question: how good is restaurant nutrition information online? For myself, because I am interested in more nutritional features than can be listed on the menu board, a good online database may be even more important.

Margo Wootan and Melissa Osborn took a look at this issue in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last February. This fall, starting with their paper, Sivakumar Chandran and I compiled this Excel sheet (.xls) with current notes about the online nutrition information provided by the leading chains, as identified by the QSR Top 50 list. Although Fast Food Facts and a couple other online sources provide excellent data bases for a large number of chains, we focused on the quality of direct information provision by the company.

The high quality and ease of use for the top several chains is notable. Here, in QSR's order, is McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. The worst non-discloser among the top 20 chains appeared to be Quiznos.

That's great for Quiznos. Now that restaurant chain may not be subject to the NYC menu board rules either.


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