Public Health Nutrition

Nutrition and health

What's on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus

Helen W Wua1 c1 and Roland Sturma1

a1 RAND Corporation, 1776 Main St, PO Box 2138, Santa Monica, CA 90407, USA


Objective The present study aimed to (i) describe the availability of nutrition information in major chain restaurants, (ii) document the energy and nutrient levels of menu items, (iii) evaluate relationships with restaurant characteristics, menu labelling and trans fat laws, and nutrition information accessibility, and (iv) compare energy and nutrient levels against industry-sponsored and government-issued nutrition criteria.

Design Descriptive statistics and multivariate regression analysis of the energy, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate and protein levels of 28 433 regular and 1833 children's menu items.

Setting Energy and nutrition information provided on restaurant websites or upon request, and secondary databases on restaurant characteristics.

Subjects The top 400 US chain restaurants by sales, based on the 2009 list of the Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

Results Complete nutrition information was reported for 245 (61 %) restaurants. Appetizers had more energy, fat and sodium than all other item types. Children's menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages. The majority of main entrées fell below one-third of the US Department of Agriculture's estimated daily energy needs, but as few as 3 % were also within limits for sodium, fat and saturated fat. Main entrées had significantly more energy, fat and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants. Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request.

Conclusions The paper provides a comprehensive view of chain restaurant menu nutrition prior to nationwide labelling laws. It offers baseline data to evaluate how restaurants respond after laws are implemented.

(Received September 13 2011)

(Revised March 08 2012)

(Accepted March 15 2012)

(Online publication May 11 2012)


  • Obesity;
  • Restaurants;
  • Food labelling;
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act


c1 Corresponding author: Email