Restaurant Menu Calorie Counts: An Expert Q&A

  • 5 Minutes Read

Restaurants with 20 or more locations must start posting calories on the menu by December. This isn't as simple as it sounds. One expert explains some key issues.

Restaurant Menu Calorie Counts: An Expert Q&A

Most dieters can relate to this: you're trying to stick to a reduced calorie diet, and you track your calorie intake everyday. You go to a restaurant, and order something off the menu. Let's say it's a big salad with chicken and Ranch dressing. You eyeball it and try to estimate the calories. But really, it's just your best guess. Later, you find some information online, and realize you underestimated the calories in that salad. Oops!

The FDA has some good news for you. Starting in December 2015, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to post calorie counts on the menu. No more guessing. And more good news: vending machine companies will also have to post calorie counts, although that won't start for another 12 months.

For many large restaurant chains, calorie counts aren't new; you can find that information on company websites, sometimes with handy calculators that add up all the parts of your meal. What is different is the mandate for posting calories right on the menu.

While some restaurant chains may see this new law as a major inconvenience, others may find ways to make the regulations for in their favor. Lower calorie meals can be a marketing tool. It may help some restaurants promote certain menu items and attract more customers.

One chain that has been working on this issue for awhile is Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, as well as several other well known restaurant brands. Cheryl Dolven, MS, RD., Senior Director of Health and Wellness for Darden Restaurants, is in charge of the chain's nutrition and health initiatives. She is very familiar with the new FDA calorie count regulations.

Posting calorie counts may sound simple: just add up the numbers and get the calories per serving. But it's not that simple. Reducing sodium - not part of the FDA regs - can be even trickier. Recently I posed some questions to Dolven about the new rules.

Question: Darden has made a commitment to reduce calories and sodium in meals. What makes these efforts tricky or easy?

Dolven: We are making progress toward our commitment to reduce our calorie and sodium "footprint" which refers to the totality of our work across the menu and across multiple brands. We are essentially tracking our progress through an average. To meet our commitment, we may add or delete dishes from the menu or redesign or resize menu items.

There are a lot of things that make this work challenging, especially since we need to keep our guest's expectations for a delicious and affordable meal our first priority. Any changes we make to the menu must be acceptable to our guests.

Redesigning menu items that our guests already know and love is the most challenging task. Adding newer menu items that are lower in calories and sodium proves to be a more promising approach - as long as they are delicious!

Question: Consumer surveys indicate that customers do not like being judged about their food choices. Can you discuss those results?

Dolven: It's simple: consumers want to be in charge of their choices and they don't want to be judged for those choices. For most consumers dining out at a full-service restaurant is not an everyday activity. Instead, it is often a special occasion where they want to treat themselves to something they would not or could not make it home. That's why our health and wellness initiatives have been driven by three principles:

Question: Measuring or calculating calories in restaurant meals is a complex process, depending on variability in ingredients, cooks' techniques and portion sizes. Menu calorie counts will not always be 100% accurate. What is the permitted variance from actual content?

Dolven: The complexity of making a recipe exactly the same in every restaurant, every day, every time isn't much different than trying to do the same thing in your home kitchen. It's simply on a larger scale. There is inherent variability in the food itself (not all potatoes are exactly the same size!) and opportunity for additional variation to occur when preparing the recipe (how tightly did you pack the cup of brown sugar?). Even with scales and measures, cooking with human hands cannot be exact.

FDA recognized that foodservice is distinctly different from the packaged foods industry, where food is made in a well-controlled environment. The standard used for packaged foods is known as the 80/20 rule: the product cannot over-report a "nutrient of need" (such as fiber or calcium) by more than 20% and could not under-report a "nutrient of concern" (such as calories, fat or sodium) by more than 80%.

Instead, the FDA regulations state that restaurants must have a "reasonable basis" for calorie and nutrient declarations. In short, this means restaurants must be able to demonstrate they have analyzed a standardized recipe using acceptable means and have taken reasonable steps to ensure that the recipe was followed in the restaurant. If audited or challenged on the calorie information provided, the restaurant will be required to show proof and documentation of their nutrition analysis and demonstrate that reasonable steps are taken to follow the recipe.

Question: Do you believe chain restaurants will be better able to produce consistent and more accurate calorie counts since they use standard portions and ingredients?

Dolven: Restaurants that use standardized recipes should be in a position to produce more accurate calorie counts. Our goal is to provide the same great tasting, high quality meal at every restaurant, every day. Standardized recipes, approved ingredients and consistent procedures help us do just that.

Question: Do you think restaurants will deliberately alter menu items to reduce the calories? Or create new items with lower calorie counts.

Dolven: I can't speak for all restaurants, but I can tell you that Darden will listen to our guests and make changes accordingly. We will change recipes or add more lower calorie menu items if that is what our guests want. We will also continue to provide indulgent items for those that are looking for that experience. We are actively working to translate the regulations to our menus so that we can be in compliance by December 1, 2015.

Question: Do you see any technological fixes on the horizon that will make this process easier for both restaurants and consumers?

Dolven: I'm not convinced that there is any technology on the horizon that will make our job of analyzing the recipe easier. However, consumer-facing technology - such as apps and electronic menus - may play a role in helping the consumer understand and use the calories they see on the menu. At the very least, restaurants are going to need to understand where and how consumers want information as technology evolves... and try to keep up!

Cheryl Dolven's answers show that compliance with the new FDA regulations will be a work in progress for most chains. Some restaurants may reduce portions to cut calories. Some may eliminate certain menu items entirely. There will be some complicated situations:

The Takeaway Message: It's not just about re-printing menus with numbers. It's about offering consumers good information, reworking some menu items and listening to customers.

Dining Out->Portion Size & Calories
Feb 24, 2015
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Food Wisdom for Women and "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen". She writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition.

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