A Diner's Guide to Health and Nutrition Claims on Restaurant Menus


For many people, restaurant dining is no longer reserved for special occasions. It is a daily event. In fact, nearly half of all food dollars is spent on food eaten away from home. That food represents one-third of all calories in the average American's diet.

While people are eating out more than ever before, many are also concerned about health and disease prevention. To appeal to health-conscious patrons, restaurants have begun offering an expanding array of "light" or "low fat" foods. More and more menus contain special "healthy" sections with names like "The Lighter Side," "Heart Smart," and "Guiltless." Do these foods live up to their claims? Not necessarily.

Unlike claims on food labels, claims on menus were not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until May 2, 1997. Since then, restaurants that make claims, like "light," "low fat," and "heart-healthy," have had to comply with definitions established by the FDA.

We've written this pamphlet to inform you about the FDA's new truth-in-menu requirements and to suggest some strategies to help you choose more healthful foods when eating out.



  • "Low fat": Most foods may be described as "low fat" if there are no more than 3 grams of fat in a standard serving. Standard servings have been established by the FDA to reflect the amount of food that is typically consumed. Since restaurants often serve foods much larger than the standard serving, a "low fat" food may actually contain large amounts of fat.
  • For example, ice cream may be called "low fat" as long as there are no more than 3 grams of fat in a standard half cup serving. However, restaurants may offer portions several times larger than the standard serving size. So a 2-cup serving of "low fat" ice cream may contain up to 12 grams of fat!

    Also, keep in mind that even a small-sized serving of "low fat" main dishes like hamburgers, pizza, or sandwiches, can have more than 3 grams of fat per serving.

    And remember, "low in fat" does not always mean "low in calories."

  • "Light": "Light" is commonly used to mean many different things. It may describe a food's taste, color, or texture, or it may indicate that the food's calorie, fat, or sodium content has been significantly reduced. Menus must clearly indicate what "light" is intended to convey. If the meaning is not clearly explained, diners should ask for clarification. If "light" is used to indicate a reduction in calories, fat, or sodium, information about those nutrients must be provided upon request.
  • "Cholesterol free": "Cholesterol free" claims are very popular on restaurant menus, but can also be very misleading. Keep in mind that:
  • * "Cholesterol free" does not mean "fat free."

    * Foods like meat, poultry, and seafood contain cholesterol -- even if they are fried in "cholesterol free" oil.

    Also, saturated fat and trans fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood:

    * "Cholesterol free" foods may contain saturated fat. The FDA only allows foods that are low in saturated fat to be described as "cholesterol free," but watch out -- many restaurants may not comply with this requirement.

    * The FDA allows foods with significant amounts of trans fats to be called "cholesterol free." To avoid trans fats, limit foods prepared with vegetable shortening or partially hydrogenated oils.

  • "Sugar free": Some foods, especially desserts, may be described as "sugar free." But keep in mind that "sugar free" does not mean "calorie free" or "fat free." If a food described as "sugar free" is not low-calorie or reduced-calorie, the menu must say so.
  • "Healthy": Food described as "healthy" must be low in fat and saturated fat and may not be high in cholesterol or sodium. However, there are no limits on the amount of sugar or calories that a "healthy" food may contain.

    For example, the official serving size of a tuna salad sandwich is 4 ounces and it contains 340 calories. The typical restaurant serving is 11 ounces and it contains 720 calories.

    For example, the dietitians estimated, on average, that a tuna fish sandwich provided 374 calories and 18 grams of fat, while the sandwich actually contained about 720 calories and 43 grams of fat!

    If well-educated nutrition professionals consistently and substantially underestimated the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals, it's clear that ordinary consumers also have trouble guessing what's in their meals.

    Request that your food be specially prepared:

    Most restaurants want to please their customers and are usually willing to satisfy specific requests.

    • Order sauces and salad dressings on the side, or ask for low-calorie dressings.
    • Request salsa, mustard, or flavored vinegars to get fat free flavor.
    • Request half-portions at a reduced price or take home half the meal in a doggie bag.
    • Ask that foods be prepared with olive or canola oil instead of butter, margarine, or shortening.
    • Request that foods be broiled or grilled instead of fried.
    Make healthful substitutions

    • Substitute skim or 1% milk for 2% milk, whole milk, or cream.
    • Choose baked, broiled, or grilled (not fried) chicken, turkey, or seafood instead of red meat.
    • If you eat red meat, select leaner cuts, like sirloin steak or filet mignon (instead of most steaks), or pot roast (instead of hamburgers or meat loaf).
    • Substitute a salad, vegetables, or a baked potato for french fries or a "loaded" baked potato.
    • Add just a tablespoon of sour cream instead of butter on your baked potato.
    • Request whole-grain breads and rolls.
    • Substitute fresh fruit for sugary, high-fat desserts.