Restaurant Chains Prepare For New Menu-Labeling Rules

Pubdate:2011-04-19   Hits:5219

A new federal law will soon make American diners far more aware of just what they are eating - but it might not change what they order.


The law will force chain restaurants to disclose the amount of calories, fat and sodium in diners' favorite dishes. Many restaurants are already preparing for the changes, calculating calories in their meals, adjusting recipes and adding healthier choices.


At the same time, experts are divided over whether the new information will shock people into ordering protein-packed salmon instead of calorie- and fat-laden fettuccine Alfredo, or if it's just more meddling by the federal government that takes the pleasure out of eating.


The move is driven by the nation's growing weight problems. Thirty percent of Americans are classified as being obese, and that number is growing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Arizona, one in four residents is obese.


Government experts say including nutritional facts can help decrease those rates. Others say it won't work because only those who already take responsibility for their diet will care.


"It's one piece to a complex puzzle," said Will Humble, director of the state's Department of Health Services.


"To make a dent in this obesity epidemic, it's going to take resources and creativity. It's really going to take a lot to turn this around."


Starting next year, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to print calorie counts on menus under the new federal menu-labeling regulation, part of the new health-care law. The law also requires the chains to make other nutritional information available by request.


A statutory 60-day period for comments began April 1. The Food and Drug Administration expects to publish requirements by the end of this year. The law would take effect six to nine months after the requirements are published.


The federal law is backed by most major chains and the National Restaurant Association, which anticipated that a patchwork of local labeling laws would only get more complicated in the future. And while many restaurant and fast-food chains already post nutritional information on websites or on brochures available on counters, the FDA wants the calories in plain sight.


Reduce obesity

Americans spend 45 percent of their food budget dining out, according to the Restaurant Association. The CDC and other health experts have linked the nation's obesity rates to eating out. And being overweight is a driver for chronic diseases and high health-care costs.


"Trying to find the healthy options when dining out can be more difficult than you think. Even a salad can be loaded with hidden fat and sodium," said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who co-authored the menu-labeling provisions in the health-care law.


Washington, D.C.-based author and nutrition expert Hope Warshaw encourages diners to speak up and ask restaurants to provide healthier options or nutrition information.


"Having healthy choices in restaurants is not just the responsibility of the restaurants," said Warshaw, a registered dietitian and author of "Eat Out, Eat Right," an eating-out guide now in its third edition. "People asking for healthier items is what is going to drive this."


But studies show that even when consumers know the calorie count, they do not necessarily make better choices.


Sample studies by the NDP Group, an Illinois-based consumer-market company, showed that the impact of printing calories on menus was minimal.


The studies also showed that diet-conscious diners also looked for terms like "fresh," "natural" and "organic."


"Calories aren't the main priority for diners who are looking for healthy options when they eat out," said Bonnie Riggs, NDP's restaurant analyst.


One NDP survey of adults 18 and older showed the average number of calories eaten when calories were posted was 901, she said. By comparison, an average of 1,021 calories were consumed when calories were not on menus.


The same study showed that consumers ordered the same number of items regardless of whether calories were posted on the menu.


Riggs said consumers may initially react to menu labeling, but she expects that "old behaviors will return in time."


In New York, which three years ago became the first city in the U.S. to mandate menu labeling, a New York University study showed that 27 percent of 1,156 adults surveyed said the information influenced their choices, but the majority said seeing the calorie counts on menus did not change their orders.


Customer impact

Calorie watchers such as Samantha Glascock welcome the changes.


The Chandler mom dines out about two to three times a week at a mix of fast-food chains and sit-down restaurants. Among her favorite dishes are El Pollo Loco's grilled chicken and the burrito bowl at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Ordering the bowl instead of a burrito cuts 9 grams of fat and 270 calories.


Glascock regularly checks nutrition and calories on restaurant websites.


Having calories in plain sight would help her "feel more comfortable going out often and trying new things," she said.


For other diners, it won't matter if there are calories on the menu.


Susie Timm of Scottsdale eats out up to seven times a week for lunch and dinner, and regularly blogs about her experience on She generally frequents independent, chef-driven restaurants.


"I don't think the average person looks at calories when they eat out," Timm said.


She agreed that calories can help people make an informed decision, but she said she believes restaurants shouldn't be forced to comply by law.


"We need to take personal responsibility for our health and our diets and not rely on the government to do it for us," she said.


Some restaurants are trying to get ahead of the mandate.


Zoe's Kitchen, a 48-restaurant Mediterranean fast-casual chain with three Valley locations, is tweaking recipes and has contracted with Healthy Dining, a company that provides nutrition-expert services, to analyze menu items for fat, sodium, sugar and calorie content.


Four months ago, the chain switched from grilling sandwiches with butter to using rosemary oil. It also has added lower-calorie items such as spinach roll-ups, hummus and pita and veggie, shrimp and salmon kebabs to the menu.


"Our customers are very savvy. They know what's good and what's not good to eat," said Tyre Stuckey, regional vice president for the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain.


Stuckey said the company plans to have its nutritional information complete by the summer.

Restaurant impact


A full 85 percent of Americans eat out mostly at fast-casual places like Chili's, Applebee's, Olive Garden or Red Lobster.


And though most chains support the federal law, the menu change will be costly. Smaller chains, exempt from the law, will also feel pressure to provide nutrition information because diners are likely to expect the same practice.


"It was much better to have a uniform standard rather than a patchwork of laws . . . at a local level," said Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.


And while some restaurants offer healthier options such as items with fewer than 500 calories, "consumers also need to be educated and know what makes sense for them and their diet," she said.


It won't be cheap for restaurant chains to test dishes and redesign menus.


Scottsdale-based My Menus has seen a 30 percent increase in clients the past six months. It charges from $5,000 to $20,000 to have dietitians analyze restaurants' menus.


"A lot of restaurants are scrambling to figure out how they will do it," said Kevin Wade, vice president of the nutrition-software company. "Over 5,000 restaurant chains will be affected."


It's not just large chains making the changes. Many independent and small chains are anticipating that more customers will demand the information once it's standard at chain restaurants.


"A lot of people are asking about more healthy dishes," said Charlie Keeme of Rosita's Fine Mexican Food in Tempe and Mesa. "Lately we've had a lot more people come in with specific food allergies, and it's becoming more common. Just being in Tempe, the vegan and vegetarian (community) has exploded."


In January, Rosita's began evaluating its dishes by typing entree recipes into a software program that measures calories, sodium and fat. The information will not be on menus but will be available upon request.


"As big chains start to do it, then (diners will) expect it from other places," Keeme said.


In January, Scottsdale-based Wildflower Bread Company, with just 11 locations, posted nutrition information for 150 of its 210 menu items on its website. It plans to complete the nutrition information for each dish before summer.


Scottsdale-based chain Pita Jungle, which has 12 locations, posts similar information online.

"Knowledge is good for people," said Pita Jungle's Rick Howard. "I have my favorites (restaurants) that are probably not as healthy as others. I still have the right to pick what I want, but it's good to see the nutrition value of the food."


The new law won't be fully implemented until at least 2012. Until then, here are some tips for eating healthy while eating out:

 Patronize restaurants willing to adapt dishes to minimize fat, sodium or calories.
 Be wary of super-sized portions. The less you see, the less you eat.
 Control fat and oil by limiting bread, butter, chips, cream sauces, meats and pastas.
 Know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats. Healthier fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Not so good: trans fats.
 Limit sodium. The guideline is 2,300 milligrams a day. Avoid adding salt and high-salt items such as cold cuts, french fries, and cheese- and mayonnaise-based sauces.


 Treat every restaurant outing as a special occasion.
 Assume that fruits, vegetables, whole grains or low-fat options are not available.
 Order dishes where meat dominates the plate. The meat portion should be 3 ounces per meal.
 Overindulge in alcohol. It adds calories.
 Drink too many non-alcoholic beverages. Soda, lemonade and specialty coffees can be high in calories, sugar and corn syrup.


Source: Author and registered dietitian Hope Warshaw of "Eat Out, Eat Right."


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