11/15/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What's On the Menu? MenuStat Makes It Easy to Find Out

Ever wondered how a McDonald's Angus Bacon and Cheese stacks up to Burger King's BK Quad Stacker when it comes to calories and salt? Or whether KFC's Crispy Chicken Salad has more fat than the Harvest Chicken Salad from Quiznos? Whether you're a curious consumer or someone who studies nutrition for a living, now there's a way to find everything you wanted to know -- or maybe didn't -- about the nutritional content of food served at national chain restaurants.

MenuStat, a free online database created by the New York City Health Department, lists over 35,000 menu items from 66 of the nation's largest chain restaurants based on information available from the restaurant's own websites. We collected the data in 2012 and 2013 and will provide annual updates. And because the information from each year is date stamped and saved, you can look at trends over time.

Discovering the fat content of your favorite burger sounds fun, but this is serious business. Americans consume at least one-third of their calories away from home, making restaurant food a major part of our diet. Because the frequency of eating out is positively associated with a higher body mass index, and many of the illnesses, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease that affect Americans can be prevented or controlled by adopting a healthier diet, understanding the nutrition in restaurant meals has become increasingly important.

It's a cliché, but it's still true that information is power, for both consumers and policymakers. That's one reason why nutrition labels are required on packaged foods and why New York City was the first in the nation to require calorie labeling in chain restaurants. Following our lead, all U.S. restaurants with 20 or more locations will soon be required by federal law to provide nutrition information to their customers, and many have already begun to do so voluntarily. The availability of this data has created a new opportunity to see how the restaurant foods we eat everyday compare, and whether nutrition claims made by restaurants pass the smell test.

There have been many recent efforts to improve the healthfulness of restaurant foods. But until now, there hasn't been an easy, accessible way to compare similar items across many restaurants and to see how the nutritional content of foods has changed. Which major chain restaurants have removed trans fat? Does the food on a kids menu really contain fewer calories than the food on a regular menu? In general, do soups or sandwiches have more sodium? With MenuStat, a few clicks will provide the answers.

Healthy eating will continue to be critical to our collective effort to tackle the obesity epidemic, which claims at least 5,000 lives a year in New York City, making it the second-leading killer after tobacco. MenuStat won't solve the crisis, but it will make it easier to track changes in restaurants foods, hold chains accountable for meeting pledges to offer healthier foods, and drive competition among companies to make healthy products. That's information worth knowing. Visit today to learn more: