BY PATRICE BARBER, RD
At USC, a nutrition kiosk in the servery allows customers to evaluate different meal choices and the effect various ingredients have on them.
The question is no longer, "Should we provide nutrition information to our customers?" Rather, the questions today are "What kind of information," "How much information?" and, "How do we share it?" The answers to these depend on yet another question: "What are your objectives?"
At the University of Southern California we are motivated by the University mission to help promote the health and well being of our students, faculty and staff. Everyone here is very busy and we want our nutrition information to actually be used. We want to make messages relevant and easily accessible, and in that way, encourage our customers to make great nutrition choices.
There can be many other motivations as well. Many commercial restaurants want to share nutrition information to help drive sales of more healthful menu choices or to make the restaurant more "welcoming" to health-conscious customers. Some are motivated to provide nutrition information because their customers ask for it.
At others, there is a "reverse motivator"—they are hesitant to emphasize nutrition because of fear that it might discourage some customers from dining at the location.
Assuming that you have decided to make more nutrition information available, the appropriate amount of detail, the nature of the information, and the placement of it will therefore vary. What is appropriate in one restaurant could be far too much or meaningless in another.
Location, Location, Location
If it is important to you that everyone sees the information without making an effort, place the information at or very close to the point of selection: in the menu, on the menu board, on a table tent or paired with each food in a self-serve situation.
On the other hand, this full, accessible disclosure can be risky business if you are not confident that your healthy items are also very appealing. Say that your customer just turned away from fries after seeing their calorie and fat counts. Your oven-roasted potatoes had better be so good that the customer can't believe what he or she was missing back in his or her deep-fried days. But if the experience isn't that good, it could have negative consequences for check averages and participation.
The message is clear: develop indulgent, tasty and healthful items, proudly display their nutrition facts, and you'll be working just to keep up with your repeat and word-of-mouth customers.
But isn't all that nutrition information kind of a drag for customers who don't care about nutrition? If they are like our students, they won't notice, won't care or maybe will poke a little fun. Either way, we have never had anyone complain that nutritional information per se detracts from their dining pleasure.
You can have quite the contrary experience, in fact. The positive response to "point of selection" food nutrition labels in our residential dining facilities consistently exceeds our expectations.
If point of selection information seems a bit "in your face" to you, there are other options that require a little more effort from your customer but can still be quite effective. Consider using posters or bulletin boards, computer kiosks, or brochures available in the restaurant.
The Internet has given us a very flexible tool for providing nutrition education to customers. I'll bet you can name a few Websites you've used to look at restaurant menus or perhaps check nutrition information yourself. There are also some great calculator tools available that allow customers to take menu items and create their own meal combinations; customers can play with the nutrient values of your foods till they come up with the perfect balance of nutrients to meet their needs. Of course, such a tool will be accessed by only your most motivated customers and depends on their memories to put the knowledge into use.
What to Share
How much information you want to share will depend on your motivation and your customers. Are you guiding young children to healthy choices? Make it easy for them with color-coding (green for eat freely, yellow for caution and red for special-occasion foods) or give them a friendly icon to look for.
An older, more sophisticated audience can also benefit from a color-coded or icon approach if it's paired with more specific information like calories and grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat. In residential dining at USC, we show how many servings from each food group are represented in each dish to give additional perspective to the calorie, protein, carb and fat numbers.
Many of us like messages that help us feel good about our choices. Who wouldn't like to know that something you are eating can help you look better, feel better or live longer? However, be very aware that if your nutrition information implies that your food is any way beneficial to your customer's health, you might be making a "nutritional claim" as it is defined under the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.
The FDA takes such claims quite seriously and it is a good idea to make sure you are doing it correctly. A comprehensive guide to the do's and don'ts of how you word your nutrition information is contained in Food Labeling Questions and Answers: Volume II A Guide for Restaurants and Other Retail Establishments and is available at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/qaintro.html
Most of your customers are comfortable with calories and grams of protein, carb and fat and many would be interested in such information. Presenting only these numbers with no interpretation such as "low in fat," "a good source protein," or "rich in complex carbs" does not make a nutritional claim and may be the preferable approach.
While there are no legal restrictions on the word "healthy," referring to a menu item that way may not attract the kind of attention you are hoping for. Many consumers equate "healthy" with "doesn't taste good." Others prefer to make that judgement themselves, based on nutrient levels.
Alternatively, use descriptors that have taste appeal and at the same time gently suggest nutrition "worthiness." Use words like fresh, crisp, ripe & juicy, naturally sweet, made from scratch, fresh from the grill, prepared fresh daily... Customers will figure it out without feeling as though they've settled for something with less taste appeal.
One interesting human habit is the frequency with which customers combine "healthy" choices with indulgent choices, while pretending they have created a balanced meal. This is often simple rationalization by customers, but can be a solid nutrition strategy in the hands of a professional.
Consider creating such meal combos for them. Promotions featuring complete meals for 600 calories or less have been successful on our campus in both residential dining and our full service restaurant. This whole meal approach has proven to be a particularly valuable nutrition education tool: our customers come to understand that all of our foods can fit into their overall healthy diet.
Sharing nutrition information has the potential to be an effective marketing tool. It can help your customers understand how your menu items can fit into their overall healthy diet and make them feel good about visiting your restaurant frequently. It can also help the restaurant industry as a partner in America's efforts toward wellness and self-care.
Patrice Barber, RD, is the nutritionist with Trojan Hospitality at the University of Southern California.