Toronto's medical officer of health is asking city councillors to rally the provincial government to adopt legislation forcing chain restaurants in the city to properly label calorie and sodium values on their menus.

In a staff report release last week, Dr. David McKeown calls on the city's Board of Health to gain the support of the premier and minister of Health and Long-term Care in passing menu labelling legislation.

"Toronto residents are eating out more, but studies show diners underestimate the calories and sodium in their restaurant meals," McKeown said in a news release. "Menu labelling will help people make more informed and healthier choices when they order their meals."

The report's recommendations will be considered at a Board of Health meeting scheduled for April 29.

Overweight Torontonians

The city estimates that 46 per cent of adults living in Toronto are overweight or obese. Almost 24 per cent of those aged 20 years and older also have high blood pressure.

McKeown’s report concludes that "comprehensive nutritional information," not limited to listing calories and core nutrients, should be available to restaurant-goers as they're deciding on what to eat.

"(Menu labeling) is a policy option that can improve the restaurant food environment by ensuring consumers are better able to make informed and healthier choices when eating out," he writes.

'(Menu labeling) is a policy option that can improve the restaurant food environment by ensuring consumers are better able to make informed and healthier choices when eating out'—Dr. David McKeown, medical officer of health

McKeown is asking that changes be applied to restaurants with 10 or more outlets nationwide, or at least $10 million in gross annual revenues. 

At least one study by University of Toronto researchers concluded that labelling calorie and sodium values on a menu is strongly supported by the public.

Professor of nutritional sciences at the university, Dr. Mary L'Abbé said many restaurants do have the information but it isn't readily available to people as they're placing their orders.

"It's on a website, or on a poster, or brochure behind the counter," L'Abbé said. "If key information is clearly placed on the menu, everyone sees it and diners can easily compare items before ordering."

Lagging behind U.S.

A newly released technical report that supports McKeown's findings, and that will also be presented at the next week’s meeting, finds that Canada is lagging behind the U.S. in requiring major restaurants label their menus.

In 2008, New York City became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to pass legislation that required large chain restaurants identify calorie levels on their menus.

According to Toronto city staff, three U.S. jurisdictions – California, Seattle/King County, and Philadelphia – have requirements that calorie and nutrient values be listed on menus.

By comparison, British Columbia launched an Informed Dining campaign in 2010, with only two major chain restaurants being voluntarily recruited to participate to date.