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5 musts for menu labeling

5 musts for menu labeling

Healthy Dining offers guidelines to help restaurants achieve accurate menu labeling

Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining, 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.

By April, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to release the final rules and compliance date for the federal menu labeling regulations that were passed as part of the healthcare reform act in 2010.

The legislation will require all restaurants with 20 or more U.S. locations to print calories on menus and menu boards; provide additional nutrition information (fat, saturated fat, sodium, protein, etc.) upon request within the restaurant setting (through a brochure, poster, etc.); and print a recommended intake statement on menus and menu boards (statement will be provided by the FDA with the final rules).

Some jurisdictions have already implemented their own menu labeling legislation, including New York City, King County in Washington, the city of Philadelphia, the states of California and Oregon, and a few others. Each of these regions requires varying information and methods of disclosure. However, the federal legislation will pre-empt all the state and regional menu labeling provisions to establish one consistent national standard across the nation.

Menu labeling has the potential to improve our nation’s health by contributing to the prevention and control of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and other nutrition-related conditions. A recent survey by Technomic showed that 65 percent of restaurant patrons favor nutritional labeling in restaurants, with the strongest demand for listing of calories and sodium content.

An important factor affecting the public health impact of the new menu labeling legislation is accuracy of the information. Nutrition information that is inaccurate and/or unreliable will compromise consumer trust in menu labeling and could destroy brand loyalty.

Restaurants can offer guests accurate nutrition information and protect their brand image by following five guidelines.

Menu labeling compliance guidelines

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1. Establish precise recipes as protocol. This is the foundation of an accurate nutrient analysis. Sub- and plated recipes must include exact measurements, detailed descriptions of ingredients (e.g., “ground, 97-percent lean turkey breast”), brand names of ingredients and corresponding nutrition information per 100 grams, and specific preparation methods (e.g., fried, marinated, sautéed).

If all of this information is not stated in the recipe and followed precisely by the cooking staff the nutrition information of the dish will be inaccurate. For instance, if no salt is included in the recipe but if a pinch of salt is added to the menu item before it is served to the guest, the sodium content will be understated by 100-200 mg or more.

If several such instances occur on one plate then the nutrient information for the menu item as served to the customer can be grossly understated. This variance will diminish the public health benefit of menu labeling, will likely be unacceptable to consumers and may destroy brand loyalty.

2. Invest in dietitians with expertise. Calculating accurate nutrition information for complex recipes and preparation procedures takes a great deal of expertise in nutrition, dietetics and food science, as well as a thorough understanding of the unique aspects of foodservice. The dietitians will need to understand the effects of evaporation, absorption, cooking methods and other processes on the nutrient values and apply formulas to compensate for those processes. A quality control and review system to double and triple check accuracy is also important.

3. Ensure a high-quality, accurate database with your restaurant’s product specs. Although there are many nutrition analysis software programs — some even included in POS systems — many programs don’t have accurate values for all ingredients. Genesis, from Salem, Ore.-based ESHA, is generally considered the time-tested standard of nutrition analysis software systems. However, it is important to gather all product labels and add them to the database. Many brands vary in nutrient information, especially sodium, so it’s important to make sure you are using accurate product information for your analysis.

4. Train staff to adhere to recipe protocol. After establishing a precise recipe as your foundation and an expert team of dietitians to perform the analysis on a high-quality database system, it is equally important to train the cooking and wait staff to meticulously prepare and serve the menu item exactly as the recipe states.

5. Keep nutrition information up-to-date and accurate. It is important to develop and implement a rigorous operational system to keep the information accurate over time. You will need a reporting mechanism for recipe changes that starts with the chef/culinary department updating the recipes, notifying the dietitian responsible for updating the nutrition information, training the cooking staff and then notifying the marketing department to update the menus, brochures, website and other materials that include nutrition information.

If restaurants fail to develop a rigid system then the reported nutrition information will not be accurate. It is usually very difficult and time-consuming to go back and figure out what has or has not been updated, so restaurants will benefit by having a system in place from the beginning.

Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians offers expert nutrient analysis, accuracy validation and consultation in menu labeling compliance.  

Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president of Healthy Dining, at [email protected].

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