It’s Time for Chain Restaurants to Tell the #SweetTruth

Pear in Mind: A Blog in the Public Interest


As a public health nutritionist, I have had the opportunity to work closely with communities, teaching people about the role that nutrition plays in shaping and supporting our health. Over the years I have watched people take and apply these learnings and transform their lives and improve the health of themselves and their families.  

But eating healthy is hard, and I have also watched people suffer. Trying their hardest to break food habits, managing devastating diet related chronic diseases, and attempting to break generational cycles of illness. I have watched people tirelessly struggle to change their diets--trying to navigate grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, scanning long, confusing labels and ingredient lists, and battling aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks.  

Chain restaurants are especially hard places for people to make healthy choices. Popular orders include “combination” or “value” meals that bundle fries and soft drinks with an entrée. These bundles are used to increase perceived value to consumers, where the meals can be upsized for as little as a dollar.  

Unfortunately, there is deception in these bargains, because a single combination meal can approach or exceed the daily limit of sodium or added sugars, making it nearly impossible for people to eat these foods while maintaining a healthy diet. The average nutrient profile of a default combination meal in the U.S. has 2,110 milligrams of sodium and 68 grams of sugar, the equivalent of consuming more than 16 packets of salt and 17 packets of sugar in one meal. 

The beverage offering in these “value” meals is often the biggest contributor to both calories and sugar. This is no surprise considering that sugary drinks are the top contributor to U.S. adults’ intake of added sugars. And restaurants have consistently increased their sugary drink offerings as well as their sugar content. Between 2012-2017, 63 of the largest US chain restaurants increased sweetened beverage offerings by 82 percent, averaging 60.5 grams of sugar, with statistically significant yearly increases in the calorie and sugar content of sugar sweetened beverages. 

Even at their “small size” these sugary beverages have large amounts of added sugars. A report recently released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that the nation’s 20 largest chains consistently serve drinks with more than an entire day’s worth of added sugars, with most chains packing more than a day’s worth of added sugars into a “small” size. Most chains also put one and a half days’ worth or more of added sugars into a single “medium” or “regular” drink, and two days’ worth into a “large.” These extreme amounts of added sugar in even moderate or small sizes indicate a strong need for warnings to inform consumers about the amount of added sugars sold in drinks and other menu items. 

In New York City, Councilman Mark Levine wants to do just that. The proposed bill, Int. 1326, which we refer to as the Sweet Truth Act, aims to get chain restaurants to tell the truth about their products by requiring warning icons on menus for items that that exceed an entire day’s worth of added sugars. And New York City residents support these warnings—in a recent poll conducted by CSPI, 85 percent of residents showed support for added sugars warnings.  

New York was the first city to successfully pass legislation to require chain restaurants to post warnings on items with more than a day’s worth of sodium (>2,300 mg), showing the city’s commitment to helping inform New Yorkers wanting to improve their health. If the bill is successful, New York would also become the first in the nation to create menu warnings for added sugars. 

As we slowly start to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is more need than ever for consumers to focus on improving our health and nutritionally managing chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Chain restaurants should want to support the health of communities as they rebuild and take steps to provide their customers with transparent information about the extreme amount of added sugars in the foods and beverages that they are offering.  

Aiming for policy change at fast-food chains is particularly critical because they disproportionately saturate communities of color and offer food of lower nutritional quality than other restaurants. Warnings can help encourage chains to rethink their menus, improving the food environment. We need to empower consumers with the information they want and need to make healthy choices when ordering food at restaurants because nutrition is a priority in every community.  

Check out the video below to learn the #SweetTruth about soda.  

If you are a NYC resident, click here to support this groundbreaking legislation in New York City.  

Not an NYC resident? Click here to sign our petition to show your support and join the movement for these policies in your community.