Calorie labels on menus could prevent thousands of deaths, save $10 billion in US health costs, predicts study
Researchers found that the rule may drive Americans to make lower-calorie choices, leading to a consumption of 7% fewer calories
A new study predicts that Americans may soon reap the benefits of the calorie labeling 2018 law on the menu cards of restaurant chains. The rule will not only cut down deaths but will also save the US billions of money, according to researchers. By 2023, the law could prevent over 14,600 new cases of heart disease and over 21,500 new type 2 diabetes cases, predict researchers from Tufts University and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. It could also add 8,749 years of life, they forecast.
In 2018, the US finalized a law that required restaurant chains to label calories of the food items sold. Consuming excess calories may lead to weight gain, obesity and related diseases, including type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease. Obesity prevalence is rising, with nearly 3 in 4 adults being overweight or obese, the authors write in their study. Data suggests that about one-third of Americans eat at a full-service restaurant and over half at a fast-food or quick-service restaurant.
"Prior to Covid-19, Americans were relying on restaurants for one in five calories on an average. Most likely, we will come to rely on them again. Our study shows that menu calorie labeling may prevent meaningful disease and save billions of dollars in healthcare costs," says Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University. Mozaffarian is the co-author of the study, along with Junxiu Liu, a postdoctoral scholar at the Friedman School.
In this study, researchers set out to understand the consequences of the 2018 law on calorie labeling. So they created a model to study health benefits among one million Americans, aged 35 to 80. It found that the rule may drive Americans to make lower-calorie choices, leading to a consumption of 7% fewer calories.
Over a lifetime, the law could prevent close to 135,790 new heart disease cases and over 27,600 deaths. It could avert 99,736 cases of type 2 diabetes and add 367,450 years of life. "We also found that menu calorie labeling could help reduce health disparities, with larger benefits among Hispanics and Blacks, those with lower income or education, and people with obesity," says Renata Micha, co-author and associate research professor at the Friedman School. It could also save $10-14 billion in healthcare, and another $3-5 billion in societal cost savings, such as lost productivity, says the study.
The law dictates that restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations post calories information on the menu. However, with the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on restaurants, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has relaxed regulations temporarily. "Current flexibility is appropriate when so many Americans are unemployed, and schools are closed. But improving the healthfulness of our food system is crucial, given the pandemic's disproportionate impact on people with diet-related conditions like diabetes and obesity, and further links to health disparities," Mozaffarian says.
"We need to change our food system through equitable, efficient, and sustained food and nutrition policies. Food labeling is an effective tool to support informed consumer choice and stimulate industry reformulation," Micha says. The study is published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.