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Industry in sync with new USDA guidelines

Consumer demand and growing trends already influencing operators

While the restaurant industry continues to face criticism for its perceived role in the obesity epidemic, industry officials say restaurateurs already are in line with the most recent dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this week.

Operators say they are addressing concerns raised in the latest guidelines by offering lower calorie options, more produce and whole grains, and menu selections containing less sodium.

The National Restaurant Association, in a statement, said it generally supports the latest set of guidelines, and noted that operators have been making nutritional adjustments to their menus for several years.

Joan McGlockton, the NRA’s vice president for industry affairs and food policy, noted, “There has been a growing trend of restaurants offering more whole grains and produce, and we look forward to continuing to work with restaurant operators and chefs to provide even more healthful menu options for adults and children.

“We support the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendations around a total dietary meal pattern which focuses on increasing consumption of whole grains, fruit and vegetables,” McGlockton said.

However, operators say they are not making the menu changes in response to government pressure. Patrick Lenow, executive director for corporate communications for DineEquity, Inc., the parent company of IHOP and Applebee’s, said changes on his company’s menus did not reflect government recommendations but consumer demand.

“There’s a heightened interest and awareness from guests, and I don’t think that’s any different from who people prepare their food at home. I think it’s an evolution in how they’re eating,” he said.

The USDA released the update of its dietary guidelines this week, and emphasized concern over high obesity rates in the country.

Recommendations included eating more and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk, more and a wider variety of seafood, a wider variety of protein, liquid oil instead of solid fat where possible, and food with more potassium, fiber, calcium and vitamin D. The USDA also advocated balancing calorie intake with exercise.

It recommended that individuals should get less than 10 percent of daily calories from saturated fat, less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, as little trans fat as possible. It also said they should “limit the consumption” of foods with refined grain, especially if those foods also have solid fat, added sugar and sodium.

The guidelines said women should drink up to one alcoholic beverage per day, and men should limit themselves to two drinks per day.

The USDA said Americans should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day and that people aged 51 or older, African American, hypertensive, diabetic or with chronic kidney disease should limit their intake to 1,500 milligrams or less.

Marion Nestle, a professor and former chair of New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, said she was most struck by a piece of advice that was contained in the press release announcing the recommendations: “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”

“That’s really good advice,” she said, adding that consumers “shouldn’t have to fight restaurants” in order to follow that advice.

The USDA explained that one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, so the guidelines place “stronger emphasis on reducing calorie consumption and increasing physical activity.”

While Nestle said foodservice operations should be offering smaller portions at lower prices, a number of operators already have been doing that for several years. For example, T.G.I. Friday’s launched its “Right Portion, Right Price” menu in 2007.

Nestle also said reducing sodium was an important component of the recommendations.

“That, it seems to me, will be an industry-wide problem,” she added, noting that reducing sodium consumption will become more crucial as the population ages and hypertension becomes more widespread.

Chains such as Chevys, Taco Bell, Bob Evans and Domino’s recently have added lower sodium items or undertaken initiatives to lower overall sodium content in their meals, as have a number of manufacturers.

DineEquity’s Lenow pointed out that IHOP and Applebee’s have had lighter menu options for the past five years, including Applebee’s Weight Watchers menu and its new national advertising supporting its lower-calorie “Fabulous and 550” menu offerings.

He added that although customers “vote with their wallets,” they’re also asking about ingredients more.

He said that their questions didn’t necessarily have to do with health.

“It’s a big mix,” he said. “Obviously, we want to make them happy, and we’re not going to ask ‘Why don’t you want the mayonnaise?’ But questions have increased without a doubt.”

The NRA pointed out that nutritionally balanced children’s dishes and an increased focus on produce ranked among the top five trends predicted for 2011.

The association also said it was working with the Produce Marketing Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association “on an initiative to double the use of produce in the foodservice sector over the next 10 years.”

“We commend the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Report for also placing a focus on calorie [energy] balance,” said Joy Dubost, the NRA’s director of nutrition and healthy living.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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