Making it count

by Eric Schroeder
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The countdown on calories has begun.

Beginning July 1, patrons at many restaurants in New York City will be able to determine how many calories they are consuming when they place their order. They may be surprised, and restaurant operators aren’t exactly happy about the development.

Thanks to an ordinance passed in December, restaurants in New York City that voluntarily provided calorie counts for customers on March 1 now will be required to do so beginning July 1 on menus, menu boards or web sites. In response to the ordinance, several restaurant chains, including Wendy’s, White Castle and Quizno’s removed the information from New York City locations and their web sites prior to March 1, in affect absolving themselves from having to disclose the calorie count of their products.

New York City’s action has been viewed by some restaurant chains as a disincentive to providing information. But even so, other locations in the United States are considering similar legislation.

In California, a bill introduced in January was passed late last month by the state Senate. Senator Carole Migden of San Francisco, who introduced the bill along with Senator Alex Padilla of Pacoima, said, "It’s just reasonable to let people know the calories they will ingest."

Other states considering similar legislation include Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and Vermont.

Devil is in the details

A significant problem facing consumers, though, is the fact most do not even know the number of calories they should consume each day. According to the second annual "Food & Healthy Survey" conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), 60% of Americans who are trying to lose weight said they are making an effort "to reduce the number of calories" they consume. However, only 11% of those surveyed know how many calories they should consume. The survey of 1,000 Americans — published in late May — was conducted over a three-week period in February and March.

Of the 58% of consumers who provided an incorrect estimate of calories, 43% underestimated and 15% overestimated the correct calorie amount per day, IFIC said.

Equally troubling was the finding that only 31% correctly understand that calories from any source contribute equally to potential weight gain, and 44% said they do not balance diet and physical activity to manage their weight.

"As was the case in 2006, the individuals who provided an estimate of their daily calorie needs are more likely to say they actually consume ‘about the same’ amount of calories per day (41%)," IFIC said. "One-third of Americans say they consume ‘more’ (34%) than they estimated, and 17% say they consume ‘less’ than they estimated. Eight per cent of those who provided an estimate this year did not know whether they actually consumed more, less, or the same number of calories as they estimated."

According to the IFIC study, those who said they consumed "more" calories than they should tend to perceive their health as "fair" or "poor," are dissatisfied with their health status, consider themselves to have an unhealthful diet, have a body mass index in the obese range, and perceive themselves as "sedentary" and not physically active.

When questioned on the relationship between the source of calories and weight gain, approximately 31% of Americans correctly identified that "calories in general are most likely to cause weight gain," IFIC said. This compared with 29% who said calories from fats are most likely to cause weight gain, 18% who said calories from carbohydrates are most likely to cause weight gain, and 1% who said calories from protein are most likely to cause weight gain. About one-fifth of Americans surveyed said they were unsure about the relationship between calories and weight gain.

Asked how aware they were of total consumption of specific nutrients, 38% said they were most aware of sugar consumption, followed by fat at 34%, calories at 27%, carbohydrates at 26% and protein at 19%. Only 7% of those surveyed said they were "extremely aware" of their daily consumption of calories.

Would you like a receipt with that?

As more states adopt legislation requiring disclosure of calorie content in restaurants, it will become imperative for food service establishments to be proactive in developing ways to best educate their customers.

Nutricate Corp. believes it has the answer. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company plans to officially launch a new product that enables restaurants and food service establishments to provide personalized nutritional information to customers in a convenient receipt format.

Invented and patented by Jay Ferro, chief executive officer of Nutricate, the receipt provides consumers with information such as calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates, and the percentage of recommended daily values based on the specific items they order.

In addition, the receipt offers health tips and facts such as "Did you know? If you hold the mayo on your sandwich, you’ll save 180 calories and 8 grams of fat." The statements are intended to help educate consumers how to eat healthier at their favorite restaurants. Mr. Ferro said the "Did you know" feature also gives operators a chance to defend products.

The data is applied to both a 2,000-and 2,500-calorie diet in order to equate percentages of daily nutritional values.

One of the benefits of the Nutricate Receipt System is its ease of implementation, Mr. Ferro said. With virtually no change to established business operations, the software is designed to work with virtually any point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system, enabling rapid deployment whether using a single P.O.S. vendor platform or multiple platforms. Deployment of the Nutricate system requires almost no modification to existing P.O.S. systems or existing printers because it is connected to, but not integrated with, existing P.O.S. systems.

"We have a device that sits under the printer, which connects to our device," Mr. Ferro said. "It intercepts the print stream and maps back to the server. Everything is transmitted wirelessly. All this happens in a split second."

What consumers have after that split second is something Mr. Ferro said has been in the offing for the past several years.

"It’s no longer a question of if food service providers will need to provide nutritional information, it’s really a now issue," he said. "The question is ‘What’s the right method?’ The method right now is putting it on menu boards. But it has its flaws. The accuracy problem is a great challenge. More than 70% of consumers customize, so menu boards are just going to be wrong."

As an example, he cited Starbucks, which offers 30 to 40 drinks but 86,000 drink combinations.

"There is no possible way to give accurate information beforehand," he said. "They can do their best on brochures, but there is no way to list 86,000 drink combinations. I feel like menu labeling is really kind of hacking at the leaves of the problem."

By providing a receipt with nutrition information tailored to a consumer’s order, Mr. Ferro believes Nutricate is filling the role of nutrition education.

"We’re hoping policy makers realize there is another option that in a lot of ways is going to be more personable," he said.

The Nutricate system is not without its challenges, though, Mr. Ferro said.

"Nutrition disclosure is always looked at as a liability (by operators)," he explained. "First, consumer demand for portion size is bigger than ever — and that is not going to look the greatest. However, portion sizes are tailing off a bit. Second, we face a challenge from the fact food service operators may see the system as a risk, not an opportunity. But I feel that if you can communicate on a personalized level there is an opportunity in which transparency leads to trust."

Regardless of the type of food service operation, Mr. Ferro said consumers may eat healthy at all of them.

"The goal is to educate consumers and to show them there are ways to eat their favorite foods in a healthier way," he said.

The Nutricate receipt has been used at Silvergreens restaurant in California since April 2006. Silvergreens, which Mr. Ferro started more than 10 years ago, offers sandwiches, salads and burgers, among other items.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 12, 2007, starting on Page 30. Click here to search that archive.

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