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Accurate nutrition info, training are essential as restaurants prepare for menu labeling

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

The Food and Drug Administration released proposed regulations for menu labeling in 2011, and final rules are anticipated later this year, Dan Roehl, NRA’s vice president of government relations, said during a menu labeling panel at the NRA show Saturday. Roehl and his fellow panelists — Healthy Dining Culinary Dietician Rachel Rothman and Darden Health & Wellness Director Cheryl Dolven — shared tips and best practices for restaurant operators who will need to  add nutrition information to their menus.

Restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to list calorie counts on menus and have additional nutrition information, such as fat and sodium content, available to customers who ask for it. The FDA commissioner anticipates that restaurants will have one year to comply once it releases final regulations, Roehl said, but the panelists agreed that starting to prepare now is the best way for restaurant operators to ensure they meet the deadline.

Rothman said the most important goal for restaurants in preparing for menu labeling is to make sure they can provide accurate nutrition information for all menu items. Implementing and maintaining proper menu labeling can be achieved in five steps, she said.

  • Making sure recipes match the way food is actually prepared
  • Obtaining an expert analysis of menu items to determine nutritional information
  • Compiling an accurate database
  • Training employees to stick to recipes and be able to answer guests’ questions
  • Continuously updating nutrition info to reflect changes in recipes or ingredients

Dolven agreed that menu labeling must begin by making sure food preparation is in line with a restaurant’s standardized recipe. “It’s really important that you re-emphasize the importance of following the recipe to your culinary team. Your nutritional analysis is going to be based on your standardized recipe, so it’s more important that ever that that standardized recipe is followed so you can pull that number from what’s on the menu,” she said.

What may seem like small deviations from the recipe can add up and result in final products that have a very different nutritional profile than what is listed on the menu. Rothman stressed the importance of accounting for every ingredient used, from the oil used to saute ingredients to various toppings or garnishes added to the plate.

“Such ingredients may be a given to the chefs preparing the recipe and may not be written down, but everything must be recorded so that it can be included in the analysis … a pinch of salt here or there could underestimate the sodium by 200 to 300 milligrams. Mayo or butter spread on a bun might underestimate the calories by 100 calories and 10 grams of fat. If you add a pickle as a garnish but it’s not included in the analysis, your sodium content might be underestimated by 500 milligrams,” she said.

Many restaurants obtain nutrition information though a blended analysis, in which an entire dish is analyzed for nutrition information. While this type of analysis can produce accurate results, having one set of data for the entire dish means that any changes to ingredients or preparation require the restaurant to retest the dish. Dolven recommended breaking down dishes into their various components and obtaining data for each by working with a nutrition expert. If one ingredient changes, operators only need to obtain nutritional information for the new ingredient and update the numbers for the dish accordingly. Dolven cautioned that there are still some types of food that warrant a blended analysis. Fried foods can be especially tricky, since simply adding the totals for each ingredient doesn’t account for oil uptake or moisture loss in the finished product.

Once nutrition information is in place and the back-of-house staff have been trained on the importance of sticking to the recipes, operators should focus on training front-of-house staff to answer questions about the numbers listed on the menu.

“Once you get that calorie number and you get it on the menu, the game is not over. One of the things you really have to start thinking about is how are you going to set your servers up for success,” Dolven said. Making sure servers are armed with the resources to answer customers’ questions is the best way to ensure that menu labeling does what it was intended to do — assist diners in making smart, healthy eating choices.



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