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Menu Labeling: Giving What Our Customers Want

The federal government’s menu labeling law is final – public comment period officially closed last July 5, and the Food and Drug Administration is set to finalize the rules anytime from now until next summer.  The bill requires chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post the number of calories each menu item contains.  Among the many debates that are ongoing is who else should comply.

While other industries are still debating, the bill is quite specific to the restaurant industry. It’s official, and there’s no more argument about it; the law is scheduled to take effect next summer.  While the rule is deemed to cause havoc for the restaurant chains, the National Restaurant Association stresses that the ruling is actually “a big advantage for both restaurateurs and consumers,” as it supplies “a consistent national standard that allow consumers to make educated choices for themselves and for their families.”

But do we really know what consumers want?  The law might cause some troubles for restaurants, but if it’s what the customers want, then maybe the effort is just about worth it.

Unilever’s Foodsolutions took time to conduct some research about the matter and presented their findings at the NRA Show in Chicago last May through the session “Menu Labeling: What It Means to You.”

The World Menu Report was centered on a global survey of 3,500 customers in the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, China, Russia, Turkey and Brazil who goes out to dine at restaurants at least once a week.  The report showed that 75 percent of U.S. diners wanted to know the sourcing and nutritional value of their meals.  Almost 64% signified that they would choose healthier meals if they are provided with the information. That means the global consumer’s outlook towards health is shifting.  They would like to know:  1) the source of the food that they eat, 2) how it was prepared, and 3) the food’s nutritional content.

The study means that with or without the federal law, it’s just about time that restaurants include calorie counts and nutritional information in their menus, if only because that is what their market wants.  And experts say that the best time to do it is now. The entire process of securing precise nutrition information for a full menu requires time and can be a bit costly.  Restaurateurs can start off by using computerized, or database, analysis of their menus in their menu covers using the following methods:

1)    Evaluate the accuracy of their recipes, including exact measurements, brand information, specific ingredients, preparation instructions—specifically all minute condiments they used that will affect the nutritional make-up of the dishes (salt, oil, recipes for marinades, sauces, etc.).

2)    Get a dependable, qualified analyst.  He needs to have a degree in nutrition or dietetics and is systematically trained in nutrient analysis for the restaurant industry.

3)    Accurate data input and analysis.  Even fried items have to be sent to a laboratory for chemical analysis.

4)    Thorough data review, to be done by qualified chefs, to make sure that all ingredients and measurements are correctly declared in the reports.

5)    Staff training, which is as important as having accurate nutrition information.  The cooking staff should be trained to meticulously and thoroughly prepare the menu items according to the preparations specs stipulated in the nutrition reports.

An additional point to remember is that restaurants should be able to plan for long-term maintenance.  The new legislation might necessitate additional procedures to ensure compatibility year after year, and it’s best that they are ready for this as they plan their budget for their menus in elegant menu covers.   They can make simple modifications on their recipes, too, once they have their complete nutrition information. Simple, small cutbacks on the amount of oil, cheese, butter, sauces, dressings and salt, added up, can bring rewarding reduction to a dish’s nutrient report.

What do customers want these days?  Healthy living and transparency.  Transparency is apparently the key in dealing with today’s savvy diners.  Once customers trust the accuracy of a restaurant’s nutrition data, they will believe, find credibility and will be loyal to the brand.  And again, with or without the federal law on menu labeling, maybe it’s about time that dining places include calorie counts in their menus…as this is, after all, what the customers want.