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Darden works to increase nutrition, keep flavor

Darden works to increase nutrition, keep flavor

Cheryl Dolven, director of health and wellness, details Darden's nutrition initiatives

Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Cheryl Dolven, M.S., R.D., Darden Restaurants' first-ever director of health and wellness, on the progress the restaurant company giant is making on its nutrition initiatives. This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights.

In early 2010, I had the privilege of talking with Clarence Otis, Darden’s CEO, and Drew Madsen, the company’s COO, when your brands first joined the Healthy Dining Program. I could sense back then that these leaders were beginning to forge a proactive role in the industry with health and wellness. And since then, I have watched those early beginnings grow and evolve in some very exciting ways, which we’ll talk about in this interview.

So, let’s start with you. You have a fascinating position as the first-ever director of health and wellness for Darden. Tell us about your position and why Darden initiated this new position.

Darden’s leadership team is very committed to health and wellness as a growth opportunity and as an important component to being a company that matters — one that makes a difference in the lives of others. So they brought me on to lead the health and wellness efforts.

I think of my position as both helping the Darden brands meet our nutrition commitments and comply with regulations, and providing direction and expertise to ensure we can meet the evolving needs of our guests and the changing demands of the nutrition affairs environment.

How important would you say nutrition is to Darden?

Extremely important. We have a sustainability platform that emphasizes three principles: people, planet and plate. This platform guides our company in making a positive social impact.

Nutrition is an important component of our “plate” principle, along with food safety, quality and seafood stewardship. Nutrition has really been rising in importance over the last five years or so. But this last year, we took the opportunity to formalize our commitment in this area. Our leaders have set a vision to be a company that matters, and having a positive social impact in the area of health and wellness is a key part of that. I am so impressed with the appetite and rigor across the company to get started on these initiatives — from our chefs to our marketing team to our purchasing partners.

Darden is one of the largest restaurant companies, so your company has the potential to really make an impact.

As the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, we know we have an obligation in this [nutrition] area. In the U.S., we serve over 400 million meals per year at 2,000 restaurants. We purchase over 2,500 ingredients from nearly 2,000 suppliers. Making changes within such a large scale and complex system will be a challenge, but one that we are committed to.

And what about your guests — how are they responding?

We know that taste and value are most important to our guests, but health is rising in importance. We are committed to offering choice and variety on our menus to meet the needs of our guests. Some may be looking to eat light and healthy. Others may be looking to indulge on a higher-calorie favorite. Our goal is to be able to accommodate both. We are actively investing in consumer research to better understand the health and wellness needs of our guests and how we can best meet those needs.

We are also committed to giving our guests the information they need to make a dining decision that is right for them. We find the Healthy Dining Program and a powerful way to do that.

Tell us about your commitment to the First Lady’s initiative through the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA).

There are three parts to our formal pledge. First is the commitment to our kids’ menus, which is fully implemented in our brands that offer kids’ menus — Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze. Most exciting is that fruits and vegetables are the default sides, and 1-percent milk is the default beverage served to kids. And the photos on the menus show the healthful kids items. So, this makes the “healthy choice the easy choice,” just as the First Lady champions that message.

The other parts to our pledge are to reduce calories and sodium across our core menus by 10 percent by 2016 and another 10 percent, for a total of 20 percent, in the following five years.

That will make a powerful impact on public health with all the people you serve each year. Tell us about how you are getting started and how you are planning to reduce calories and sodium.

We have been busy working on building the foundation to measure the changes, finalizing the methodology with PHA, and developing our culinary strategies. We are working with Healthy Dining’s dietitians to develop the nutritional database of all our ingredients and recipes, which as you know, is a big job for all of our brands. That will give us the platform we need to identify ways that we can reformulate to reduce calories and sodium. If we reformulate any of our current favorites, we will work hard to ensure we are not sacrificing the great taste our guests have come to know and love. We know many of our guests save their money and their calories to eat out at Darden restaurants, and meeting their expectations is our first priority.

We are most excited to introduce new, light and healthy options to our menus, such as the “Flavorful Under 500” section introduced at Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden’s new “Light Italian Favorites” selections. I love the fact that our commitment will drive more choice and variety in this area. Our chefs are really excited about this, too!

Reducing sodium creates the greatest challenge. What are your thoughts on that?

We are excited to dig in and see what we can do. Ten years ago we didn’t have the technology and ingredients we have now. It is definitely a challenge, and there are a lot of variables. We need help from our supplier community, and we know we have strong partners to help us get this done. Many of them are already asking us what they can do to help us meet our goals.

Wow, it is great to hear that your suppliers are so willing to help. As suppliers reformulate their products to reduce calories and sodium, it will be easier for all restaurants, which means you are making an even greater impact on public health.

Yes, we know that given our size and scale, we have the ability to make a positive impact. This is a very busy, exciting and rewarding time for Darden. 

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