Can Google Make Fast Food Healthier?

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When cooking at home, measuring the health value of a meal involves reading nutritional information printed on food packages or searching for food items online. When eating out, however, information is far more limited. Most large fast-food chains only provide calorie counts — if the information is available at all.

Now, a simple Google search can help diners assess the nutritional value of a restaurant meal. Based on data provided by Nutritionix, a nutrition and restaurant database company, Google now displays nutritional information in its search results when the word “nutrition” is included in search queries along with a restaurant name. According to the company’s press release, a user can tap on any of the menu items within Google’s Knowledge Graph to see a full nutrition fact panel for that item.

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Despite the importance of healthy eating to promote longevity and quality of life, the field of nutritional science is relatively young and the demand for nutritional information is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was introduced just 25 years ago. And the Affordable Care Act’s menu labeling provision was finalized only this year. The law, which also applies to vending machines, will require chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments to list calorie information on all food items.

The new rule is a welcome development for many Americans. The movement towards healthy living has been gaining momentum for decades. Only recently, one of the largest supermarkets in the country counted the trend as driving its success. Whole Foods Market, which has been a stalwart supporter of the organic movement and promotes itself as a sustainable provider of healthy food, was the ninth most popular supermarket in 2014. Similarly, warehouse giant Costco boasted the most organic sales of any other supermarket this year.

Fast-food restaurants have also taken notice. For example, McDonald’s announced earlier this year it would only use chickens raised without antibiotics, a policy that will take two years to implement. Chipotle recently announced that it would stop serving pork at hundreds of restaurants because one of its suppliers violated its animal welfare standards.

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Yet, while the first step to improving your diet is learning more about what you eat, digesting the sheer volume of information, as well as the bombardment of vague and competing health claims, can be challenging. Even when caloric content is available on menus, the meaning of the numbers often remains unclear. In fact, researchers at the University of Arizona found that only a fraction of consumers actually used the information provided on the labels and that the lack of context was a major contributing factor.

While the menu labeling law will improve transparency around the nutritional value of fast-food meals, caloric information is not enough. According to the FDA, “Other nutrient information—total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein—will have to be made available in writing on request.” New services like the Google search-Nutritionix feature arm consumers with technologies that improve context and avoid the paperwork.