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There’s more to effective menu labeling than crunching numbers

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued its final guidance on menu labeling, which affects foodservice operations “…with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items.”

To learn the nuances about which of your establishments are covered or exempt under the guidance and the menu labeling criteria to be followed, click here. You have one year until the Notice of Availability is published in the Federal Register to comply. As of the writing of this article, the NOA has not yet been published.

As a registered dietitian, I have mixed thoughts about menu labeling for calories and other nutrition information.

On the one hand, it can provide a piece of the nutrition puzzle for those who have other information in their knowledge base and at their disposal. On the other hand, and under certain circumstances, the information can be fairly meaningless without access to or understanding of other knowledge and skills.

In my opinion, if you want to make menu labeling truly helpful for your customers, it requires more than just crunching the numbers and posting them on menu boards and take-away pamphlets.

Healthy eating is about so much more than the absolute numbers for calories, fat, carbs, sugar, sodium, protein, etc.

Gone are the days of the “calories in equals calories out” mantra. We now know that the matrix in which certain nutrients are provided (in their natural form versus being extracted and isolated) and the quality of those calories plays a significant role in how we metabolize food. To boot, our personal genes and circumstances also come into play. Two people of the same height, weight, sex and age can eat the same exact meal and they will metabolize it differently based on their individual makeup, activity levels, health status and other needs.

It’s not the role of the foodservice operator to be a physician to your customers’ individual needs. However, I do think there are steps and concepts that should be taken into consideration so that your customers can take advantage of your menu labeling efforts in a way that is truly beneficial to their health.

1. Accurate menu labeling requires savvy nutrition analysis skills. Nutrition analysis goes way beyond listing a food and it’s quantity into a nutrition analysis software program. There are countless examples of nuances that need to be taken into consideration. One very simple example is whether a recipe lists the salt that is used to boil water. If this salt is not listed in the recipe but the chef is in deed adding it to the water, the final nutrition analysis is affected. While this seems like a trivial matter, there are complex recipes with multiple nuances that can lead to a dramatic difference in the nutrient contents of the recipe versus what the analysis shows. That said, I recommend assigning an experienced professional to do your nutrition analysis.

2. Nutrition analysis is based on a precise serving size. If your customers are receiving a one-cup serving when the nutrition facts cite a half cup, or if they don’t know how to portion out a one-ounce serving of cheese at the salad bar, they may be taking in far more (or less) calories than they think. Beyond written information, what can you do to help your customers become familiar with proper portion sizes? Ensure precise portion sizes wherever possible, including for hot meals and to-go options. Provide visuals of proper plate, bowl and cup portion sizes. Offer serving utensils, dishes and beverage containers that enable proper portioning for self-serve items. Such efforts well be much appreciated by your interested customers, many of whom are eating in your dining room on a regular basis.

3. Nutrition facts don’t provide all the facts. As I mention above, a calorie isn’t just a calorie. And all fats, carbs and sugars are not equal. The only way your customers can distinguish the quality of calories, fats, carbs, sugars and protein in the meals you serve them is by reading the ingredients statement in conjunction with the nutrition facts. Making ingredient lists available for your mixed food dishes is a commendable act, especially for your customers with food allergies and sensitivities. I understand that may be a large undertaking and not an accessible one in the short term. If that is the case, then a food philosophy of using wholesome ingredients and limiting refined foods, added sugars, sodium and artificial ingredients will go a long way toward making your health-conscious customers happy.

You’ve put in a great deal of work to adhere to the menu labeling guidelines. These are just a few examples of how to make your hard work worth the effort. Your resident dietitian is an excellent resource for implementing other ideas.


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