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Healthy Menus: Are Customers Saying One Thing Then Doing Another?

Healthy Menus: Are Customers Saying One Thing Then Doing Another?Healthy this.  Healthy that.  We want nutrition information.  We want healthy menu choices.

The drumbeat coming from consumers and consumer groups over the last five years has steadily increased, demanding healthier options from restaurants in all segments of the food service industry.  Heavyweights like McDonald’s have bent under the pressure, and everyone across the industry has heard the call for healthy menus and responded.  This should be a classic example of the customer asking and then receiving exactly what they wanted.  Responding to the needs of customers is what success in food service is all about, right?

But what if customers are saying one thing and doing another?  A recent study conducted by Mintel Menu Insights reveals that 8 in 10 adults in the United States say eating healthy is important to them.  But when it comes to sitting down to a meal at a restaurant, only 20% of diners are thinking about healthy options.  Taste (at 77%) and hunger satisfaction (at 44%) are much more important to the customer’s dining experience.  Even worse, 54% said that healthy menu items are more likely to be more expensive.

More than three quarters of the American public want to see nutrition information on menus, and legislation has already been passed in several states mandating that information be presented by restaurants.  A national bill is in the works and will probably pass within the year.  Eventually, consumers are going to demand that entrees be healthy AND have superior taste and hunger satisfaction.  The more readily available menu nutrition information is, the faster that time will come.

So customers may be saying one thing and doing another currently.  That will probably change as menus help inform customer decisions with calorie and nutritional information.  As that time approaches, restaurants will do well to figure out how to take the taste and satisfaction that comes from traditional preparation  methods like frying and infuse it with lighter, healthier fare.

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LEAN Act Gaining Popularity In Congress

The Labeling Education and Nutrition, or LEAN Act, is gaining sponsors and votes in the United States congress.  The legislation would create a national standard for labeling menu items across the entire food service industry.  Consumers overwhelmingly support menu labeling, with some polls showing a 75% majority in favor of nutrition information on menus.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) and its offshoot, the Coalition For Responsible Nutrition Information (CRNI), support the LEAN Act and are lobbying congress for its passage.  As more and more municipalities and states have passed menu labeling laws, restaurateurs, and especially national chains, have recognized the need for a national standard that will eliminate the growing patchwork of local laws.

The biggest issue many restaurants have with menu labeling is the complicated and sometimes expensive process of analyzing the nutritional values of menu items.  Each ingredient must be separately assessed for its nutritional value, and even slight variations in portions can alter the numbers.

Traditionally, ingredients were analyzed in a laboratory, which usually translated into a lot of time and money to get each ingredient’s nutrition information.  Recently, some companies, like MenuCalc, have compiled databases of ingredient nutrition information from USDA labs, eliminating the need for expensive laboratory testing.

No matter what, menu labeling is coming, and restaurants are going to have to deal with that reality.  A vote on the LEAN Act is expected during this session of congress, and we could see a national standard for menu labeling by as early as next year.

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Menu Labeling Law Being Considered in Congress

The movement to accurately label menu items with nutrition information is gaining ground at a remarkable pace.  In 2008, the state of California, the cities of New York and Philadelphia, and two counties in Washington and Oregon passed legislation requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information to their customers.

20 more cities, counties, and states currently have similar laws on their dockets.

Studies have shown that 75% of consumers favor mandatory menu labeling in food service establishments.  Consumers are already familiar with nutrition labeling since it became standard on food products, and most want the same information when they dine out.

Critics cite the cost of analyzing menu items for their nutritional content as being prohibitively expensive for most small and mid-size food service businesses.

They also say menu variety will disappear because once a recipe is analyzed for its content, it cannot be changed even slightly since this will alter nutrition information.

However, the NRAsupports menu labeling legislation, but has chosen to lobby for a national bill that will preempt the growing patchwork of local and state laws regulating menu labeling and set a single national standard for menu labeling.

Menu Labeling Law Being Considered in Congress

The LEAN Act is currently being considered in Congress

The Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act was introduced in 2008 and sets a national standard for restaurant menu labeling.  It is supported by the NRA and the Coalition for Responsible Nutrition Information (CRNI), an NRA-led advocacy group.  LEAN is currently in front of Congress and awaits a vote.

As restaurants in places like California begin the process of evaluating their menu nutrition information, a new industry has sprung up around nutrition.

One of those companies is MenuCalc, a San Francisco based organization that has compiled a huge database of laboratory analyses of common food ingredients.  Restaurateurs can use this information, which is accessible through the web, to create their own menu nutrition data.

No matter what, menu labeling is probably a trend in the food service industry that is beyond the point of no return.

It’s likely that in 10 years nutrition information will be as common on menus as Nutrition Facts labels are on food products today, and that leaves restaurateurs two choices:

Analyze and post nutrition information for their menu items today, or put it off for tomorrow.

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Hot Restaurant Trend: Menu Nutrition Labeling

Nutrition labeling is nothing new in the food industry.  Nutrition Facts have become ubiquitous on everything from milk cartons to candy bars.

But up until recently nutrition information on menus was largely absent.

That’s changing, and places like California and New York city have already passed legislation requiring nutrition information be displayed on menus.

Complying with new regulations is a compelling reason to begin recipe analyses, but it shouldn’t be the only reason why you start labeling your menu items with nutritional information.

Providing nutrition information creates customer loyalty and gives healthy menu claims credibility.

In an increasingly health conscious society, consumers want access to nutrition information.  The advent of nutrition labeling on grocery products has made them familiar with nutrition information and restaurants that have tried labeling have received an overwhelmingly positive response.

And menu labeling is a great way for you to market healthy menu choices because customers have all the information they need right in front of them.

Conducting recipe analysis will help you improve ingredient choices and streamline food preparation.  The process of analyzing the ingredients and preparation process you use for each recipe on your menu means you can reassess how you prepare menu items.

Often better ingredients can be employed to improve a recipe’s nutritional value.  Simple changes in food preparation methods can also improve nutritional value.

Perhaps most valuable to restaurateurs is the standardization of the food preparation process.  Small changes in how food is prepared, like variations in sauce and ingredient amounts and cooking times, can drastically change the nutritional value of a menu item.  Recipe analysis means you must prepare menu items the same way every time to maintain accurate nutritional labeling, and this has the valuable side effect of improving kitchen efficiency and reducing waste.

Laboratory Analysis vs. Database Analysis

Restaurateurs have two choices when deciding how to analyze their menus: a laboratory analysis of nutritional content or the computer database analysis of recipe ingredients based upon previous laboratory analyses of those ingredients.

Laboratory analyses are conducted by an independent laboratory, where each ingredient in a recipe is studied and it’s nutritional value calculated through testing.

This method is:

  • Generally used for standardized products with large distributions
  • Used by many large chain restaurants
  • Necessary for fried food products, because the variations in cooking times and the fat absorption qualities of individual foods require case-by-case analysis
  • Typically do not provide nutritional breakdowns of individual ingredients in a recipe, making it more difficult to adjust preparation methods and ingredients to achieve more healthy combinations
  • Requires a standardized food preparation method to ensure the accuracy of the analysis.  Slight variations in food preparation or ingredient amounts
  • Is much more expensive and time consuming than a database analysis

Database analyses collect the results from lab tests already conducted on a wide range of common recipe ingredients, eliminating the need to pay a laboratory to conduct a new test.

Access to database analyses:

  • Are much more affordable and less time consuming than lab analyses
  • Yield breakdowns of different recipe elements like sauces and condiments, giving you a more accurate picture of the nutritional content of each menu item
  • Allow you to adjust recipe ingredients and preparation methods to improve nutritional content and market claims like low sodium, fat free, etc.

Hot Restaurant Trend: Menu Nutrition LabelingMenuCalc is an online tool that uses database analysis to calculate the nutritional value of your menu’s recipes instantly.

You can do the analyses yourself using their wizard style interface and also get help from their experienced staff to create accurate menu labeling for your business.

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Hot Chef Trends for 2009

Despite the economic downturn you’re sick of hearing about (unless you’ve been under a rock), two trends remain hot for the food service industry in 2009: food nutrition and sustainability.

Even as consumers tighten belts and close wallets, they’re looking for healthy foods brought to them in an environmentally sustainable way, and if they think they can afford it, they’ll go for the product with the “green” label every time.

An older trend that’s still going strong is healthy and nutritious foods.

Most customers have started to blend green or organic food with healthy food, which makes it easy for you to blend the two into your menu for 2009.

Here are some tips to help you keep up with the times:

Customers want healthy choices, not demands. In other words, they appreciate healthy options on a menu but don’t want to be forced to eat them.  Menu diversity is nothing new, but it would surprise you how many restaurants have made the mistake of getting a little overzealous with healthy menu options.

Sometimes customers just want a burger and fries.

Advertise your sustainability. In recent years, your business has more than likely adopted cost cutting measures like recycling, energy conservation, and buying local products.

Let your customer know!

These are things they can connect with that make them feel good about consuming your product and bringing them back for more.

Back your claims up with green certification. Claiming to be green is one thing.  Getting certified is an entirely different matter.

The Green Restaurant Association has been promoting sustainable restaurant practices since 1990.

Getting your restaurant certified green will not only help you cut costs, it will give you and your product legitimacy in the eyes of the customer, enhancing their loyalty and increasing person-to-person buzz about your business.

Oh, and you’re helping the environment!

A healthy kids menu equals happy customers. Gone are the days of giving little Jimmy a burger and fries off the kid’s menu while Mom and Dad enjoy their entrees.

Today’s parents want nutritious offerings for their kids that will be eaten with all the enthusiasm of a Happy Meal.

Coming up with creative menu items for kids that are both healthy and satisfying can be a challenge, but the chef who pulls it off can count on happy customers coming back with the entire family.

Buy local (thinking global optional). As energy costs rose in the past few years, buying produce, ingredients, and meats locally became a red hot trend in the food service industry.

Not only does buying locally cut costs, it affords chefs and restaurant managers more purchasing flexibility.

Add in customer appreciation because your business is saving energy and investing locally, and you’ve got a winning combination.

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