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Behind the Line: Calories count

Nutrition disclosure on menus affects diners' orders

Darden, Red Lobster's parent company, supports a
    federal law for menu disclosure. - Photo courtesy of Red Lobster
By Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2009

Consumers care deeply about the nutritional information of the food they eat in restaurants, according to a February Technomic survey. New York City restaurants with 15 or more units have had mandated calorie disclosure since the city passed a regulation last July. The Technomic survey revealed that 82 percent of the city's restaurant diners said calorie disclosure affects what they order, while 60 percent said it affects what restaurant they visit.

Eighty-one percent of consumers thought restaurants have a responsibility to respond more aggressively to nutritional concerns by offering more low-calorie and small-portion options. Research also showed a high level of consumer support for mandated disclosure of fat and sodium content in restaurant foods.

New York City is not alone in its menu nutrition information legislation. Philadelphia and Washington's King County have passed nutrition information laws and several state legislatures have pending labeling laws, among them Indiana and Massachusetts. In King County, which includes the greater Seattle area, disclosure of calories, sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates is required.

California was the first to pass statewide menu labeling legislation for the disclosure of caloric information in the form of bill 1420 last fall. The bill, which goes into effect in July, requires that California restaurants with 20 units or more provide nutritional information to consumers either on a menu or on a menu board.

That bill will affect 100 Darden Restaurant units, which includes the Red Lobster and Olive Garden brands. The company has implemented calorie disclosure in seven restaurants in New York City and six in King County.

"We're focused on supporting a federal law that would require standard disclosure across the country, a national standard for everyone," says Rich Jeffers, spokesperson for Darden Restaurants. "The patchwork system in place right now is confusing for the consumer, and difficult for restaurants to comply with."

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) is in full agreement, and is supporting a national bipartisan bill to prevent a potential conflict with local regulations. The Labeling Education & Nutrition Act, introduced to Congress last fall, would provide a nationwide menu-labeling standard.

"When different rules exist in various parts of the country, it makes it difficult for consumers to compare options," says Dawn Sweeney, NRA's president and CEO. "Consumers deserve a federal standard that provides access to the same nutrition information no matter where they are or where they live."

Darden tests the calorie content of its meals in specialty laboratories, a process that Jeffers said is "not inexpensive." But in units where that information is disclosed, the company has not seen any significant changes in guests' ordering preferences.

If you're going to disclose the calorie counts of your dishes, you'd better do it accurately, as Applebee's International can testify. The company is facing a class-action lawsuit after an E.W. Scripps media investigation found it was one of several chain restaurants misleading diners on the nutrition facts of its so-called healthy dishes.

The suit came after Scripps tested food in eight cities from popular chains like Applebee's, Taco Bell and Chili's restaurants last spring. They found that some dishes contained twice the calories and eight times the fat published in the restaurants' nutritional information.

Law firms in Kansas, Washington, New York and Illinois filed the suit in September 2008 against Applebee's International, its parent company DineEquity and WeightWatchers on behalf of every person who has eaten from the Applebee's WeightWatchers Menu in the last four years. The menu includes entrées like Cajun Lime Tilapia, a WeightWatchers-approved item that, according to Applebee's, constitutes six points in the WeightWatchers program.

In a statement, Applebee's International spokesman Miles McMillin said the reason for the variation between published and actual nutritional information is because the meals are homemade and "don't come out of a box."

Disclosure of calorie content has been difficult for small, independent restaurants because of the high cost of laboratories and consultants and the complexity of nutrition software. But FoodCalc is poised to change that with its online tool, MenuCalc, which instantly calculates the nutritional profile of recipes.

MenuCalc gives restaurant operators two options: an online DIY plan where they can license the online application for unlimited nutrition analysis, and a Registered Dietician Plan, where the company's dieticians perform the analysis. In February the California Restaurant Association announced a partnership with FoodCalc, giving its 22,000 members a nutrition analysis discount.

Until now, the annual fee for MenuCalc has been $4,200, but company President Lucy Needham recently reduced the price to $1,800.

"We needed a price that would make sense for restaurants to have access to MenuCalc, particularly during this economic crisis," 
she says.

"A lot of the larger chains already have their nutritional information in place," she adds. "These days we're fielding a lot of calls from smaller, independent restaurants looking for our services, wanting to provide calorie disclosure as a competitive advantage, because diners are asking for it, or because they feel it's the right thing to do."

Whether a large or small operator, the demand for increased menu information will continue to escalate - regardless of whether the information influences their order preference or not.


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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