Biggest restaurant nutrition news of 2012

Three major themes set the stage for restaurant nutrition moves in the coming year

Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining [4], a company that has been at the forefront of restaurant nutrition since 1990. This series provides restaurant operators with information on industry-related nutrition topics. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation's Restaurant News.

As we near the end of 2012, a review of the year’s news indicates that the emphasis on nutrition in the restaurant industry will continue to expand in 2013.

Three major nutrition-related themes — legislation, proactive industry efforts and healthier food trends — filled the news and are providing the impetus to help restaurants rise to the challenge of meeting guests’ needs and preferences while demonstrating social responsibility and building a competitive edge. Here's a look back at the biggest nutrition news of 2012 that arose within those themes.

Proactive industry efforts

Many restaurants are joining the Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell Programs to demonstrate the industry’s proactive, voluntary efforts and to provide Americans with a growing selection of healthful menu choices.

HealthyDiningFinder.com [7], launched in 2007 in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association and with partial funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has grown to include close to 400 restaurant companies, from large chains to independents, spanning quick-service concepts to fine dining, coast to coast. New restaurants that joined in 2012 include California Pizza Kitchen, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Restaurants, Roy’s Restaurants, Flemings Steakhouse, BJ’s Restaurants, Mimi’s Café and Which Wich Sandwiches, as well as many regional restaurants.

Eat Healthy Mississippi [8], launched in collaboration with the Mississippi Restaurant Association, Governor Phil Bryant and Healthy Dining, includes more than 30 state-based restaurants that are now offering a selection of Healthy Dining-approved menu choices, including locally grown ingredients.

Kids LiveWell [9], developed by the National Restaurant Association in collaboration with Healthy Dining’s dietitians, has grown to include more than 110 restaurants representing more than 30,000 locations nationwide. New restaurants include Applebee’s, Chick-Fil-A, Qdoba, and many regional and independents nationwide.  

Healthier food trends

Consumer research shows that more than seven out of 10 consumers said they are trying to eat more healthfully at restaurants today than they did two years ago.

"Based on our trend data, consumers have an increasing interest in health and nutrition, and today's restaurant guests are paying more attention to nutrition when dining out," said Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., the NRA's director of food and healthy living. "To that point," she added, "restaurants are really stepping up to the plate when it comes to expanding their healthful menu options, and consumers are taking notice."

The National Restaurant Association just released its yearly “What’s Hot” forecast, a survey of 1,800 chefs. Top trends for 2013 build upon the top 2012 trends, including healthier kids’ options; locally sourced meats, seafood and produce; gluten-free options; sustainability and increased whole grain offerings. More than half of the chefs surveyed said they always make efforts to adjust dishes and recipes to be more healthful, while 37 percent said they cook with nutrition in mind, but that not all recipes are easily adjusted.

Legislative efforts

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Menu labeling

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release the final Menu Labeling rules [10] in early 2013, with an anticipated six- to 12-month compliance period. This provision will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calories on the menu and have additional nutrition information (sodium, fat, etc.) available.

Some news this year has covered whether alcoholic beverages, movie theaters [11], hotels, stadiums, and other venues will be included in the provision, which has support from consumers, the restaurant industry and health advocates alike.

Vending machines are included in the provision, and the major soft drink companies announced plans to launch a “Calories Count Vending Program [12]” next year that will focus on promoting lower calorie products at vending machines.

Louisville, Ky. [13], was the only region this year that passed and enforced a regional menu labeling ordinance; however, the federal legislation will pre-empt all state and regional menu labeling provisions.

In November, Technomic [14] released research showing that 65 percent of restaurant patrons favor nutritional labeling in restaurants, with the strongest demand for listing of calories and sodium content.

Sugary beverages

New York City passed the first legislative effort of its kind, banning the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks [15] that contain more than 16 ounces. This regulation includes restaurants, street carts and movie theaters. Other regions are considering similar legislative efforts.  

Allergy awareness

Rhode Island, following Massachusetts’ lead, approved a bill requiring restaurants to display allergy-awareness posters [16] to inform foodservice workers of the importance of their roles in preventing allergic reactions and the steps they can take to protect food-allergic customers. Additionally, restaurants are required to post a notice on menus and menu boards asking customers to make servers aware when placing their orders if someone in the party has a food allergy. The first-of-its-kind Food Allergy Conference for Restaurateurs [6] was held in Boston to help restaurants develop a program to meet the special dietary requirements of guests with food allergies.

Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected] [17].