In July 2011, a study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), in which Tufts University researchers found that about 80 percent of tested restaurant food landed within 100 calories of the nutritional information advertised on menu boards and websites. While that news posed well for restaurant operators, what didn't was that researchers also found that 19 percent of the menu items tested had at least 100 more calories than the restaurants claimed.
The study was scrutinized by the National Restaurant Association because of the researchers' methodology of only testing food items that were packaged into to-go containers. However, it did bring to light that when it comes to menu nutritionals — variances will always exist.
Since the FDA allows for some leniency in regard to nutritional variances of packaged goods, restaurant operators should expect the same. As outlined in the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, Nutrition Facts labels are given a margin of error up to 20 percent.
These variances will occur regardless of who conducts your menu analysis or if you use fresh or frozen foods as ingredients. This is because variances are a natural part of food items as each item ranges in size and shape. Additionally, because of the handcrafted nature of most menu items, no two items can be made exactly the same way each and every time!
When it comes to communicating the nutritional information of your menu items, transparency is key. Have a disclaimer somewhere on your restaurant menu boards, informational pamphlets and website that promotes the steps taken to ensure accurate nutritional information while also communicating that variances do occur. Here is an example of one such disclaimer from a well-know restaurant chain:
"We believe in offering our guests a broad range of dining experiences that appeal to a variety of taste and dietary preferences, and we welcome the opportunity to work with guests to customize their experience or make substitutions where possible. All items on our menus have been independently tested by accredited laboratories with expertise in nutritional testing. However, due to the handcrafted nature of our menu items and slight variances in ingredients we receive from suppliers, minor variations in nutritional values may occur."
The great thing about the above example is that it appropriately communicates three things:
Each of the three points listed are positive reflections of the company and its effort to provide accurate nutritional information. Something diners no doubt appreciate just like we know they appreciate the nutritional values as a useful guide for nutrition, despite minor variances.
Keep it positive when you're discussing menu variances to your restaurant staff so they can also guide specialty-needs and calorie-conscious diners to the best possible options. Additionally, teach your staff to always put the control back in the hands of your guests. For example, remind your staff and guests that posting calorie information on menu boards and your website gives them control over their dining experience. They also should know that the general FDA guideline of 2,000 daily calories is to provide the right amount of energy needed to get through each day.
At MenuTrinfo, we work with restaurant operators and other foodservice companies on the development of nutritional analysis and disclaimers that take into account the variances associated with menu ingredients. We're helping our clients flip the fear when it comes to providing believable and clear nutritionals and we can help you, too.