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Consumers’ increasing desire to learn about their food continues to be a trend, and more restaurants, particularly quick service and fast casuals, are responding. In doing so, they are adding nutritional calculators, allowing consumers to gauge the calories, fat and sodium content, cholesterol, carbohydrates and more of their meals.
Lara Baldwin, brand marketing coordinator of FoodCalc.com, providers of MenuCalc, an online web-based nutrition analysis solution designed for restaurants and food professionals, believes the industry’s attitude toward nutrition calculators has changed drastically over a short period of time.
“The majority of our clients, which are actually small independent restaurants, are using our product because other larger restaurants are their competitors, so they’re really doing it to keep a competitive edge,” Baldwin said.
Using a platform like MenuCalc allows those small independents to offer the same service as some prolific chains, such as Steak ‘n’ Shake, Texas Roadhouse, Red Mango and Fresh Express, all of which also use MenuCalc.
The top five users of MenuCalc, by cuisine, are Mexican, pizza, pub/bar/grill, sandwich/bakery and salad bars.
“Restaurateurs are always interested to hear this statistic because they tend to believe that nutrition analysis is only for ‘healthy’ salad-type establishments, when in fact, our top three users by type are cuisines that are typically considered unhealthy,” Baldwin said.
Erik’s DeliCafe, with 28 locations around Santa Cruz County, the Bay Area and the Monterey Bay Peninsula in California, has been using MenuCalc to supply a nutritional calculator to customers on its website since 2009.
"We receive tons of emails complimenting us and thanking us for providing nutritional information,” said Brian Johnson, general counsel for Erik’s DeliCafe. “The main sentiment from customers seems to be, ‘thank you for having this information readily available’.”
SmartMenu, an integrated ordering and selling solution created by UsableHealth, creates immediacy to the customer experience by utilizing touchscreen tablet computers for ordering at the counter, as well as at tables for full-service establishments.
The nutritional calculator tool offers suggestions for diners to choose meals based on their specific dietary preferences and health needs.
“We can help our clients provide nutrition data by working with a third party nutrition analysis company as well, and we turn that into a value-added service for diners to generate customer satisfaction and brand loyalty,” said Chad Bonner, chief strategy officer for UsableHealth. “We’re able to target needs, such as allergies, high blood pressure and diabetics as well.”
SmartMenu clients include Atlanta, Ga.-based fast casuals Fresh2Order and Tin Drum Asia Café.
Bonner pointed to the consumer demand for information over the past several years as the catalyst for restaurant operators’ interest in SmartMenu.
“We asked our first client, Tin Drum Asia Cafe, if offering customers nutritional information was something they would appreciate and be interested in, and they immediately said yes,” Bonner said. “While it may not be the majority of their customers, they felt the demand was great enough that it would help them compete as a health brand with some of the larger, more established fast casual health-branded chains.”
Consumer demand driving trend
According to the National Restaurant Association forecast for 2011seven out of 10 consumers said they are trying to eat healthier when dining out now than they did two years ago. To tap into that trend, the industry is turning to these nutritional calculators as a competitive advantage, Bonner said.
It seems to be resonating with some consumers thus far.
Gina Williams, 30, of Louisville, Ky. has been using the online nutritional calculator on LiveStrong.com to find out nutritional information for weight loss purposes for about two years. But losing weight isn’t her only reason for using the site.
“I want to be fit and healthy, but more importantly, I want to know what’s in my food,” Williams said. “I think choosing and living a healthy lifestyle means being informed about what you’re putting in your body.”
Williams cited a recent lunch at Panera Bread in which she ordered the Greek salad only to find out later that it had 440 calories, 39 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein and six grams of fiber, among other nutritional information.
“Even though it was a salad, it wasn’t a very well-balanced choice,” Williams said.
Williams is among many Americans becoming more conscientious about food choices, especially when it comes to dining out.
“I want to make good food choices, but I don’t want to sacrifice going out to eat to do so,” Williams said.
“Self” magazine launched its site NutritionData.com less than a year ago and is reporting more than 1 million unique visitors every month, according to "Self’s" digital director, Kristen Dollard.
The nutrition calculator tool includes many searchable restaurant menu items. There are 86 searchable McDonald’s menu items, for example.
“People want to know ‘what’s on my plate,’ and I think it’s really more about the individual user rather than the bigger picture, like where the FDA stands on sugar or flavored foods,” Dollard said. “People are educating themselves about the foods they’re eating and choosing to buy.”
Here’s a list of some chains providing nutritional calculators on their websites: