While we're still waiting for the FDA to hand down the final version of menu labeling regs, we can take a look at what's on restaurant menus right now.
That's exactly what two Rand Corp. researchers did, and what they found isn't encouraging, given that 82 percent of adults eat out once a week or more.
In a study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, Helen W. Wu and Roland Sturm took a "snapshot" of the state of nutrition disclosure by chain restaurants between February and May 2010. Part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more outlets to disclose calories in individual dishes so diners know before ordering. Additional nutrition information must be available on request.
No wonder the feds felt the industry needed a nudge to open the kimono a bit wider. For starters, Wu and Sturm could find complete nutrition data — fat and sodium content as well as calories — from only 61 percent of the nation's top 400 chains (based on 2008 sales). Some information was provided in the restaurant, some on the company's website; some they had to email the corporate office to find. The harder the information was to find, the more likely it was to show the dishes were high in fat, sodium and calories.
The good news was that the majority of the main entrees offered did not exceed 667 calories, one-third of the daily 2,000-calorie intake recommended by the USDA for the average American. The bad news is that 96 percent of the nearly 31,000 menu items studied failed to meet USDA recommendations for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat combined.
That includes kids' meals and "healthy" alternatives at outlets ranging from family-style and fast casual to ethnic and high-end cuisine. Surprisingly, quick-service chains did better than family-style restaurants — until you take into account that most QSR orders include two to four items, all astronomically high in sodium.
So, the one sliver of nutrition information to be disclosed uniformly — calories — has for the most part been addressed on paper by the big operators. The rest of the ingredients of a healthy meal — not so much.
One major challenge for the researchers was a lack of standard reporting practices. Pizza shops played with the size of the one slice in a serving. A single piece of fried chicken does not a meal make, usually, and how do you measure a buffet serving?
What you measure and how you measure it matters. At MenuTrinfo, we've looked at a lot of menu items over the years. Our team of registered dieticians drill down deep into every ingredient used in every step of the preparation of every item, and analyze how they work together. What they find can be surprising, even to the chefs who created the dish.
Good Housekeeping just had an article in the June 2012 issue named "Portion Distortion" addressing this exact thing. Clients want to be on the side of the serving size they can defend, not caught looking like a deer in the headlights.
I'll be the first to admit that this is a lot more work than simply running the ingredients through a one-size-fits-all computer program. But we believe that more information is always better — for diners, for operators, for kitchen staff, for the industry in general. That's why we follow a rigorous system of nutrition analysis based on standard calculations, and are happy to share our work with others willing to follow the same standards.
Because once you know what you really have, you can make it better for everyone.
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.