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How to tackle menu labeling

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March 28, 2010 | By Anita Jones-Mueller
Anita Jones-Mueller

Editor’s note: The following column is from Healthy Dining, a group of restaurant-industry nutrition specialists. Healthy Dining’s website, HealthyDiningFinder.com, helps consumers find restaurants offering “dietitian-approved Healthy Dining” menu options. This series of columns provides restaurant operators with information on industry-related nutrition topics. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation’s Restaurant News.

It’s official. A nationwide menu-labeling bill has passed as part of the larger health care reform bill. This new legislation, which applies to restaurants with 20 locations or more within the United States, will pre-empt the regional and state-based regulations that have been causing havoc for chains operating in multiple jurisdictions. The National Restaurant Association emphasizes that this new ruling is a “win for consumers and restaurateurs” as it provides “one consistent national standard that helps consumers make choices that are best for themselves and their families.”

What should your restaurant be doing to get ready?

Start now

At this time, a formal date for compliance with the standardized menu labeling legislation has not been established. That is good news for all those who don’t yet have nutrition information. Even restaurants that have nutrition information should take time to assess the accuracy of their current nutrition data.

The process of obtaining accurate nutrition information for a full menu can take quite a bit of time and can run from $5,000 – $35,000 or more depending on the number of menu items, number of fried items, and the complexity of your menu.

Computerized, or database, analysis is usually the most cost-effective and flexible for restaurant companies and can be very accurate by adhering to the following methods:

1. Review recipes for accuracy: Recipes should include exact measurements, specific ingredients, brand information and preparation instructions. Be sure to include precise measurements of salt, even that pinch that is added Ôto taste,’ oil used for sauteing, and other ingredients that may not be included in your recipes but will affect the nutritional makeup of the dishes. Your analyst will need all recipes, including sub-recipes for marinades, sauces, etc.

2. Find a trusted, qualified analyst: You will need to rely on the expertise of your analyst and be confident that you will have access to the data for the life of your concept. Your analyst should have a degree in nutrition and/or dietetics and be thoroughly trained in nutrient analysis for the restaurant industry. This is a distinct skill set from analysis techniques used for food products or consumer consumption. Your analyst should have a quality assurance guarantee and use a reliable nutrient analysis database designed specifically for nutrient analysis.

3. Data input and analysis: This process includes a thorough review of the accuracy of your recipes, the gathering of product and brand information, the input of data and report generation. Fried items will need to be sent to a laboratory for chemical analysis.

4. Data review: Corporate chefs need to thoroughly review each nutrition report, including the sub-recipe analysis, to verify that all ingredients or measurements are accurately stated on the reports.

5. Staff training: Having accurate nutrition information is 50 percent of the equation. The other 50 percent is dependent on the training and supervision of the cooking staff in adhering to the recipes upon which the analyses were based. Cooking staff will need to be trained to prepare the menu items according to the amounts, ingredients and preparation specs as they correspond to the chain’s nutrition reports.

Plan for long-term maintenance

The first steps outlined above provide an important foundation for maintaining the accuracy of nutritional data. But the new standardized menu-labeling legislation will require additional procedures in restaurant operations and training processes to ensure compatibility year after year. It is very important that each of the steps is executed meticulously when restaurants are first developing nutrition data, similarly to how a company keeps financial records. Each ingredient’s nutrient profile will be input into the database and must be accurate to guarantee an accurate result, and then anytime a restaurant changes a recipe or product, it will be important to report that change to the analyst so that updates can be made. In addition, as food suppliers reformulate products, they should notify clients of changes to the nutrient content that clearly will affect a restaurant’s nutrition data.

Test and implement simple modifications

Once you have nutrition info completed, you can review the data and identify strategies for reducing calories, fat or sodium. Can you reduce, even slightly, the amount of oil, butter, cheese, dressings, sauces, salt or other higher sodium ingredients? Small, simple modifications can bring some rewarding reductions to a dish’s nutrient profiles. Your analyst should be able to offer strategies for making simple modifications and explain how those will reduce the targeted nutrient.

Consider nutrition information as an extension of the restaurant brand

Your guests trust your brand. When calories are printed on your menu and menu board, as required with this legislation, it is important that your customers trust the accuracy of your nutrition data. Before printing a menu, be sure your numbers are proofed by your analyst. A typo on your nutrition data would be costly and unfortunate.

As the demand for healthier cuisine continues to grow, restaurant guests will appreciate choices that meet their needs. Now is the time to consider offering a selection of healthier dining options, a gluten-free menu or disclosure of allergens, for example.

Publicize healthy dining choices to help your guests enjoy

Many Americans are striving to eat more healthful meals. Some consumers must eat healthier to control nutrition-related health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease, arthritis or celiac disease. An additional segment of consumers wants to eat healthfully because doing so enables them to live their lives to the fullest. So, providing healthier choices and nutrition information is a wise strategy to help a growing segment of customers enjoy your restaurant more often – with their friends, family and business colleagues.

Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH is the founder and president of Healthy Dining. Healthy Dining has helped hundreds of restaurant companies provide accurate nutrition information. In collaboration with the National Restaurant Association, Healthy Dining leads the largest-ever restaurant nutrition initiative featuring 70,000 partner restaurant locations. Partner locations offer a selection of dietitian-approved Healthy Dining options featured on the consumer-targeted site: HealthyDiningFinder.com. For questions or more information, contact Anita@HealthyDiningFinder.com.

Copyright © 2010 Nations Restaurant News. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from NRN.com

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