Poll says fast-food nutrition baffles consumers

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Common sense says a chicken Caesar salad makes a lower-fat lunch than pasta with sausage, a barbecue chicken pizza or lasagna.


For consumers staring up at a fast-food menu board, coming up with the right answers to questions like that is essential if they're going to choose more healthful meals and avoid obesity, diabetes and a raft of other chronic illnesses.

But most Californians don't have a clue, according to a Field Poll released last week. The poll was commissioned by public health advocates backing a bill in the state Legislature that would require chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menu boards and menus.

The poll asked 523 registered voters to answer four seemingly simple questions: Pick out the dishes with the most calories, the fewest calories, the least salt and the most fat from among menu items from Denny's, Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill and McDonald's. Just as on the menus, the only information given was the name of the dish.

By any measure, the respondents flunked. Two-thirds answered all four questions wrong. And no one person got all four right. The results were the same regardless of age, income, education or political party, according to the poll.

The same poll showed that 85 percent of Californians support the idea of requiring chain restaurants to print calories and other nutritional information on their menu boards and menus; 15 percent are opposed. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The poll is part of a campaign by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy to attract support for SB120, which calls for menu labeling as a way of helping consumers fight obesity and its related health problems.

Patterned after a pioneering law that goes into effect in New York City on July 1, the bill would require chain restaurants with 10 or more outlets to post calories on their menu boards. Restaurants with menus would have to print calories, fat, saturated fat and salt content for each dish.

California is one of 11 states following New York City's lead and considering such labeling.

The California Restaurant Association opposes the bill, which it estimates would affect about 40,000 of the state's 87,000 restaurants.

"A lot of restaurants in California, primarily the chains, already provide this information either in the restaurant, on a Web site or in pamphlets," said association spokeswoman Kearsten Shepherd.

Posting the information would be costly and impractical, given frequent ingredient substitutions in the kitchen and chefs' spontaneous creativity, she said.

If people are already getting the information, it didn't show in the poll results, said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

"You have a better chance of choosing healthy foods if you're blindfolded and throwing a dart at a menu board," Goldstein said. "I know, because I couldn't even do it with my educated common sense."

Goldstein, who has a doctorate in public health, didn't come up with one right answer when he tried the quiz.

"In the context of this obesity epidemic, where the food industry is saying it's all about personal responsibility and personal choice," he added, "it turns out we don't have the information we need to make a healthy choice even if we want to make a healthy choice."

Health quiz

A new poll by Field Research Corp. asked Californians to identify the low-calorie, low-salt, high-fat and high-calorie menu items from a list of four choices. Of the people surveyed, 68 percent failed every question, and no more than 11.2 percent got any one question correct.

Number in parentheses that follows each possible answer is the percentage of survey respondents who selected that food item:

1. Which of the following breakfast items that are served at Denny's do you think has the fewest calories?

A. Ham and cheddar omelet (36.2)

B. Country fried steak and eggs (11)

C. Three slices of French toast with syrup and margarine (14.7)

D. Three pancakes with syrup and margarine (28.5)

Answer: Country fried steak and eggs (464 calories)

2. Which of the following items that are served at Chili's do you think has the least salt?

A. Cajun chicken sandwich (6.6)

B. Classic combo steak and chicken fajitas (7.6)

C. Guiltless chicken platter (24.9)

D. Smoked turkey sandwich (51.5)

Answer: Cajun chicken sandwich (2,220 milligrams of sodium)

3. Which of the following items that are served at Romano's Macaroni Grill do you think has the most fat?

A. Traditional lasagna (35)

B. Chicken Caesar salad (10.1)

C. Pasta classico with sausage and peppers (21.8)

D. Barbecue chicken pizza (26.2)

Answer: Chicken Caesar salad (69 grams of fat)

4. Which of the following items that are served at McDonald's do you think has the most calories?

A. Two Big Macs (53)

B. Two Egg McMuffins (8.4)

C. One large chocolate shake (11.2)

D. Four regular hamburgers (22.1)

Answer: One large chocolate shake (1,160 calories)

Source: California Center for Public Health Advocacy

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