Friday, September 3, 2010
A girl walks into a bar, a restaurant, a donut shop....
Whether it's a bar or a bank of vending machines, proposed new FDA rules will require many eateries and drinkeries to post the calorie cost of food and drink.
Let’s start with a waist whittling word problem. If someone who usually gets a small order of fries and a large sweet tea at McDonald’s wants to skip one to lighten their lunch, which would cut the most calories? Answer: it’s a wash. According to nutrition facts posted on the company’s website they each contain 230 calories. The point is that it’s not easy to guess the amount of calories in menu items. A study by Healthy Eating Research at the University of Minnesota found that people tend to get calorie counts wrong most of the time. For instance, when a restaurant dish sounded “healthy”, such as a Chef’s Salad (930 calories) 90 percent underestimated the calories. That’s why many health professionals and now politicians want to see more nutrition labeling on restaurant menus.
Uncle Sam’s Menu Plan
Authorized by the healthcare legislation passed earlier this year, the U.S Food and Drug Administration recently released a draft of guidelines to require that calorie information be posted on menus and menu boards by restaurants and other food stores with 20 or more locations and vending machine operators with 20 or more machines. “Knowledge is power,” says Atlanta registered dietitian Marisa Moore, “Having nutrition information available for foods eaten away from home is critical to help make healthy choices.” Moore, a spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association, believes the new federal menu labeling requirement would help, “They will allow you to play detective less often. I’ve used online nutrition facts for years to help clients make healthy choices away from home. It’s helpful to see the 150 calorie difference between the grilled vs. fried chicken sandwich before you ever have a chance to taste it.” The new rule also requires that additional nutrition information on fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, sugar, fiber and protein be made available upon request.
Will It Help?
Americans consume about a third of their calories from food prepared away from home so restaurant meals do offer a significant opportunity to provide a “teachable moment” in nutrition education. Moore explains, “Having nutrition information on hand allows you opt for one instead of two slices of cheese, skip the sauce, use less salad dressing or opt for a lower calorie offering.” Studies conducted in California and New York City, where restaurant labeling is already required, found that point-of-purchase nutrition facts may result in the selection of healthier meals. Women tend to use the information more than men. Many major chain restaurants and health focused eateries already voluntarily provide menu nutrition facts on websites and some right on the menu, but new federal guidelines aim to offer a standardized format so that diners can more easily compare apples to apples or apple pie to apple pie. Even with those suggested improvements- it’s complicated.
-What Might Be Missing- Pay close attention to how the menu item is defined. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to list nutrition information for sandwiches without including cheese, mayo and special sauces. Entrée Salads may not include calories in the salad dressing you add later. Moore says, “Obviously these add significant calories, fat and sodium to the total.”
- The Fudge Factor - Keep in mind that the nutrition information may not be perfect. There’s a proposed +/- 20% margin of error allowance. This accounts for the human influence in preparation and variations in product composition, analysis methods and databases. For instance, a cook may decide to add a little more salt or butter to a recipe.
-Your Calorie Cap - Moore says, “In order to use nutrition facts effectively, you need to have a general idea about how many total calories you need to determine how a specific menu choice will fit into your day.” A recent survey found that just 1 of every 8 American adults (12%) knows about how many calories they need in a day. To get an idea about your calorie needs, check out www.mypyramid.gov.