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Menu Labeling: It’s Complicated

girlwithmenu The countdown to provide calorie counts and other nutrition information for menu items is in full swing for more than 250,000 restaurant locations nationwide. Faced with a December deadline set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets are busily crunching the numbers to provide nutrition facts on their menus, websites and in-store signage.

“Menu labeling is the biggest advance in providing nutrition information to consumers since the law that required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods was implemented 20 years ago,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for The Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In addition to calories, written information on total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber and protein must be available upon consumer request. The intent of the new law is to guide diners toward healthier choices on the menu.


Joy Dubost, registered dietitian with the National Restaurant Association says, “Many restaurant patrons have stated that menu labeling is important to them when dining out, and we also know that based on trend data consumers are demanding more healthful options.”

Nutrition by the Numbers

Seeing the facts right up front can help diners avoid calorie bombs or at least be forewarned of the waistline busting cost of indulgent dishes and drinks.


“What I like about the new legislation is that it holds restaurants accountable,” says registered dietitian Nicole King of the website Healthy Dining Finder.com.

How do restaurants come up with the nutrition numbers? The FDA allows several methods including the use of software programs based on nutrient data bases designed to calculate nutritional analysis for recipes, using nutritional information already calculated for recipes in published cookbooks or the more costly but most accurate laboratory analysis of individual items. King says, “And restaurants have to show their work when they provide documentation to the FDA so it’s clear what method was used.”

closeup picture of screaming businesswoman over white

It’s Complicated

Presenting the information to consumers is not always a simple task. Take a pizza restaurant for example. How do they list the nutrition numbers for all of the combinations of toppings and different kinds of crusts? King says, “It’s complex and cumbersome.”

Staff training is part of the new labeling law too to ensure that cooks follow the recipes. A liberal hand with the salt or mayonnaise in the kitchen will mean the numbers on the menu won’t match the dish being served.

“We have to remember this is hand crafted food not made to specs such as an Oreo where every cookie is exactly the same size. There are going to be slight variations,” says King.


Other challenges behind the scenes are happening behind the bar. From pina coladas to cosmopolitans, alcoholic beverages are included in the menu labeling law even though they weren’t part of the packaged foods labeling laws. That’s why you don’t see calorie counts on a bottle of vodka. “The alcohol piece was not regulated at all. But now cocktail menus have to list nutrition information,” says King. So now when you say ‘make mine a double’ don’t forget to double the calories too.


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You may have heard the simplistic advice to dine out less often if you want to weigh less. It’s true that restaurant portion sizes can tip the scales and dishes are often gussied up with more cheese, butter, oil and salt than you might use in home cooking. But, sounding the alarm to avoid eating out in an effort to improve nutrition habits is like telling people to leave their cars in the garage if they want to avoid getting into an automobile accident.

To improve highway safety we need driver’s education. The same goes for safely navigating a restaurant menu. We need more diners’ education!

Restaurant Road Rules:

1. Map Out Menu Choices: Read the menu and listen carefully when servers list the specials. Check out the menu online to help you plan a safe route. Nicole Jones, who founded a dinner club group that meets once a month to dine out in Atlanta restaurants says, “We always scan the menu ahead of time so when we arrive everyone knows that they might want. I’m a planner and if I want to splurge on a dessert I pick my appetizer more carefully. I even ask the waiter to bring the dessert menu before I order my entrée!” I met Jones and her group of foodie friends at Pricci in Buckhead where she enjoyed the mussels and tiramisu.

2. Signal Your Intentions: Be specific about what you want or don’t want. For example, ‘Can you lightly brush the fish with butter?’ or ‘Ask the chef not to salt my food.’ Jones, whose dinner club has visited 35 restaurants in 3 years, observes,
“Every restaurant we’ve been to has diet friendly recommendations which are just as tasty.”

3. Be Aware of Surroundings. Remember where you are. Ask for balsamic vinegar in an Italian place and rice wine vinegar in a Japanese place to add non-fat flavor to foods. Béarnaise sauce at steak houses often arrives in a huge gravy boat, best kept way on the side. But, if the sauce is a light swirl and part of the chef’s creative gourmet vision, enjoy it the way it’s intended to be. Jones’ reviews, “Whether on the lamb chops or mussels, each sauce at Pricci was delicious and distinctively different.”

4. Dine Defensively. Be honest when the waiter asks you how you like your meal. Don’t suffer in silence. They want to work fast to make you happy. Heck, the raspberry vinaigrette meant for the salad might even be the best request to add flavor to a grilled chicken breast. Eating out can be a taste adventure, “I like to try things I’ve never had before,” says Jones.

5. Use Your Mirrors. Check out the Room. Look around and see what other diners are eating so you get a visual on portion sizes. Way too large? Split the entrée or plan to box up half for carry-out. Spying on other tables will also let you see that the entrée “served with spring greens” is either a sizable serving of salad or a disappointing wisp of lettuce garnish. Take special note of road hazards. Jones admits the freshly baked bread served with marinara and warm goat cheese at Pricci was “Hard to resist!”

6. Highway Etiquette: Oh Waiter! Make eye contact, smile and appreciate your server. It’s just human nature–waiters are likely to spend more time at friendly tables. Tip for good service when the server goes to the mat for your special order request. They’re not doing it for their health-even if you are! Let them know they’ll be rewarded ahead of time by saying, “If you help us eat a little less… we’ll tip you a little more.” Smaller hips, bigger tips!!

7. Enjoy the ride! Make dining out a special occasion and enjoy the conversation as much as the cuisine. Jones formed her dinner club to make new friends when she moved to Atlanta from Houston in 2007, “There are 22 ladies on the roster and we’re moving beyond the table to include white water rafting trips and ski vacations, too.” Next stop for Jones’ dinner club is Capital Grille in November. Watch the béarnaise sauce ladies. There’s great cheesecake for dessert.

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Nutrition at your fingertips

TMI. Too much information can be frustrating thing no matter what the topic.
Calorie counts on menu items can certainly help dieters quickly decide between the chicken fried steak and grilled chicken. But, a lengthy list of nutrition facts can be mind numbing when charts downloaded on smart phones or from restaurant websites reel off everything from cholesterol and fiber to vitamin and mineral content. What was I having for lunch again? Can’t someone just telling which choice is better for me? Well, that depends. Are you looking for a burger or pizza? And do you care more about calories or sodium?
Providing choices within categories and putting them into perspective is what Usable Health kiosks aim to do for restaurant diners with an eye on their diet and health. Here’s how it would work. Say you’re at Chic-Fil-A and you’re watching your sodium intake. Punch in chicken sandwich and the kiosk would reveal you can save 250 milligrams of sodium by swapping the fried chicken sandwich for the char grilled. Care about calories? The kiosk would alert you to swap the McChicken sandwich for a hamburger and save 110 calories. Right now, Atlanta based Usable Health, has interactive kiosks placed in the midtown location of Atlanta restaurant chain, Tin Drum.
Chad Bonner, co-founder of Usable Health says, “People are loving the experience and we’re tracking over 150 individual orders per day.” The health-based menu ordering service developed by Georgia Tech researchers prompts customers to select personal health goals including management of diabetes, blood pressure or weight. Then the kiosk suggests a customized menu. Bonner predicts technological support of menu guidance will be even more in demand as regulations take effect requiring restaurants, airport food outlets and even vending machines to provide nutrition information, “We’re really excited about taking this to the next step of personalization including more detailed health information and food preferences.” Currently, users can sign up on usablehealth.com to create a profile and be a part of this growing company’s consumer research. While we wait for more technology to help translate nutrition numbers into healthy menu choices, here are some word clues to help you cut calories by decoding common menu terms.
Fat by any other name
Aioli-mayonnaise with garlic
Au Gratin- topped with cheese, butter and breadcrumb mixture
Beurre–butter’s French name
Bisque-most often a cream based soup
Béarnaise–watch the “-aise,” which indicates egg based mayonnaise
Crispy-code word for fried!
Crusted or Encrusted–coated with nuts, bread crumbs or potato, pan fried until crispy

Leaning toward leaner….
Au Jus–pan juices often reduced with no fat added
Braise–slow cooked to tenderize meats or fish, often little added fat
Broth-fragrant water based sauce with infused flavors ie. chicken & lemongrass broth
Coulis–all hail the coulis, often a no-fat-added puree of vegetables or fruit
Primavera – Italian for “spring”; indicates vegetables are major ingredient
Provencale- South-of-France style sauce with tomato and other vegetables

Ask Questions If It Says:
Grilled–watch out for butter or oil slathered on during grilling
Roasted–watch out for extra fat used in roasting, ie.butter basted
Poached–not always in water, watch out for poached in oil or butter
Sautéed — butter or oil are used, chefs can limit amount if asked
Steamed- watch out for butter or oil added after the steaming

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