According to a recent study led by Tufts University, the 2018 implementation of menu calorie labels – mandated by the Affordable Care Act for all chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets – is helping Americans make healthier choices at restaurants and fast-food operations, leading to a net decrease in caloric intake by 20 to 60 calories per meal.
Although this reduction may not sound too significant, the experts estimated that it is sufficient to prevent over 28,000 cancer cases linked to obesity and 16,700 deaths over a lifetime, while saving $2.8 billion in healthcare and societal costs. Since obesity-related cancers currently represent 40 percent of all newly diagnosed cancer cases, helping people make healthier food choices both at home and at restaurants could be considered an important cancer prevention strategy.
“It’s important for us to continue to show consumers, policymakers, and industry how small changes can lead to big benefits,” said lead author Mengxi Du, a doctoral student in Nutrition Epidemiology and Data Science at Tufts. “Our population-level view suggests that these labels can be associated with substantial health gains and cancer-related healthcare cost savings that could be doubled with additional industry response, such as by replacing high-calorie menu items with lower-calorie options or reformulating recipes.”
The model developed by the research team assumes that menu calorie labels lead to one pound of weight loss per year and estimates that it increases health gains and net savings the most among young adults aged 20-44, who are recently facing a disproportionate rise in obesity-associated cancers. While Hispanic and Black individuals are also likely to see more cancer deaths averted by menu labeling, further work is needed to ensure that people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are equally benefiting from food labeling policies.
“People with higher education or income levels are aware of the information in menu labels and how to understand it, but we need to put some effort into education among underrepresented, low-income, or at-risk communities because we still see some disparities,” Du explained. “I think people would like to see calorie numbers when they go to a restaurant – even if menus don’t provide comprehensive nutrition information, it helps us all make quick calculations about the food we’re about to purchase.”
“From this research, we can see how labeling policies that effectively encourage consumers to make healthier dietary decisions are a form of cancer prevention – they reduce an individual’s chances of being obese and getting an obesity-associated cancer, while improving quality of life. These policies don’t require a lot of spending, especially when compared to cancer screening costs, but provide a lot of benefits,” concluded senior author Fang Fang Zhang, a cancer epidemiologist at Tufts.
The study is published in the journal BMJ Open.