Counting calories

by Eric Schroeder
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When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, people everywhere embarked on the first moments of one of the most widespread of resolutions: to get in shape. For many, specific weight-loss targets may have been established. For others, the vow may be simply to eat healthier, or perhaps to incorporate an exercise program to help keep off the pounds.

While the bad news may be that diet programs are difficult and keeping the weight off is challenging, the good news is restaurants are attempting to make it easier for consumers to reduce calories through portion control and nutrition labeling. What seemed to be a trend embraced by only a few chains just a few years ago has escalated to a feverish pace spurred by demand, the economy and government regulation.

“The first quarter of each year typically sees an increased promotion of lower calorie and healthier restaurant offerings due to the appeal and demand of consumers who wish to lose weight after the holidays and support their New Year’s weight loss resolutions,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic, Inc. “With expected increase in government regulations with regards to mandatory menu labeling, some restaurants are attempting to be more proactive in preparing for this change.

“As a result, restaurant menu development will be emphasizing healthier alternatives and offerings that promote good health and allow greater transparency to the consumer.  Rather than hide the bad-for-you items, restaurants will attempt to promote the good-for-you items and emphasize a healthier lifestyle.”

One of the first to tackle the trend was Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands, Inc., which operates Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s and A&W All-American Food restaurants. In October 2008 the company said it would begin posting calorie information on menu boards in company-owned restaurants with the goal of completing the initiative by January 2011.

Since that time, Yum! Brands has taken the initiative a step further by altering its various menus to reflect consumer demand for products that fit into a weight management program. At the end of November, KFC Corp. introduced a 395-calorie Kentucky Grilled Meal for $3.95. More recently, Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell subsidiary launched a program it’s calling the Drive-Thru Diet, which includes seven new menu items each with 9 grams of fat or less and no more than 340 calories. Taco Bell points out on its web site and in promotions for the Drive-Thru-Diet campaign that it is not a weight-loss program and that the products are “not a low calorie food.” Instead, the restaurant chain said the “Fresco” menu may help with calorie reductions of 20 to 100 per item compared with corresponding products on its regular menu.

Reduced calorie choices

Applebee’s Services, Inc., Lenexa, Kas., first reached out to restaurant patrons back in 2004 when it signed an agreement with diet giant Weight Watchers International to offer low-calorie alternatives across the menu at Applebee’s. At the time, several nutritionists mentioned the move signaled a wave of the future. Earlier this month, Applebee’s further expanded its “better-for-you” options by introducing a new menu featuring five entrees with less than 550 calories.

“We know our guests want choices, including lower-calorie entrees, but they still want meals full of flavor,” said Mike Archer, president of Applebee’s Services, Inc. “We’ve created a menu that doesn’t compromise.”

The “Unbelievably Great Tasting and Under 550 Calories” menu includes Grilled Shrimp and Island Rice, Asian Crunch Salad, Grilled Dijon Chicken and Portobellos, Asiago Peppercorn Steak and Spicy Shrimp Diavolo.

Starbucks Corp., Seattle, has been tinkering with its food menu for the past few years, looking for the right mix of products to match its core coffee clientele and drive sales. The company sharpened that focus earlier this month with the announcement it will offer a line of Panini sandwiches with 400 calories or less, in addition to promoting its coffee beverages with less than 90 calories. Starbucks also will promote snack products from several companies that contain 220 calories or less per serving.

Dunkin’ Donuts, Canton, Mass., offers a DDSMART menu, which includes Dunkin’ Donuts food and beverages that meet at least one of the following criteria: 25% fewer calories; 25% less sugar, fat, saturated fat or sodium than comparable fare, and/or contain ingredients that are nutritionally beneficial. The company earlier this month expanded to include a low fat cranberry orange muffin. The cranberry orange muffin, which contains 3 grams of fat, comes on the heels of a low fat apple caramel muffin that was available for a limited time throughout the fall.

Say it with style

Drawing in consumers is not as simple as just adding lower-calorie or reduced-fat items, though. Restaurants are finding it equally as important to pair calorie counts with memorable slogans that in many cases either relate to product count or a perceived cheaper price point.

For KFC, it is the “395 for $3.95” campaign. A smaller chain pairing price with weight management is Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain is running a “5 under $5” campaign from Jan. 4 to Feb. 28. The five menu items featured — orange peel chicken bowl, teriyaki chicken wrap, teriyaki veggie bowl, oriental chicken salad and veggie yakisoba bowl — have been certified nutritionally sound by Healthy Dining Finder’s registered dietitians and nutrition professionals.

A different approach is under way at Corner Bakery Cafe, Dallas. The restaurant chain is introducing a “100 Under 600” program showcasing more than 100 different soups, salads and sandwich combinations that are under 600 calories.

“Our guests find that it’s easier to keep their resolutions when they dine with us because with over 100 different soup, salad and sandwich combinations under 600 calories, they can enjoy great tasting but sensible meals year round without making drastic changes to their diet,” said Ric Scicchitano, senior vice-president of food and beverage for Corner Bakery.

Studies, surveys and government action driving change

While it may be easy to say restaurants are making menu changes solely for the benefit of their customers, the reality is several factors are driving the change. A growing number of cities and states are adopting legislation requiring restaurants to disclose the nutritional make-up of their products, and health care reform law in the pipeline may mandate that chains with more than 20 outlets post calories on the menu in a “clear and conspicuous” manner.

Adding more fuel to the fire are the publication of more scientific research showing the effect that nutrition labeling and disclosure is having on consumption patterns.

For example, a new study released Jan. 6 from researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that calorie posting at Starbucks stores in New York City led to a 6% reduction in calories per transaction during a period spanning Jan. 1, 2008, to Feb. 28, 2009. Mandatory calorie posting began April 1, 2008, in New York City. As part of the study, transaction data was provided to the researchers by Starbucks for 222 stores in New York City and compared with 94 locations in Boston and Philadelphia, where there is no calorie posting.

The researchers found nearly all of the effect was related to food purchases, as average calories from food per transaction fell by 14%, with 10 percentage points due to people buying fewer items and 4 points due to people buying lower calorie food items.

The Stanford study comes just a few weeks after researchers from Yale University issued findings suggesting nutrition labeling and education may play a role in directing calorie intake (see Food Business News of Jan. 5, Page 1).

Even as the research shows the impact of calorie labeling, a study published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that some commercially prepared foods contained more calories than indicated in nutritional labeling. The study, which was conducted by researchers from Tufts University, found measured energy values of 29

quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more calories than stated values. In addition, measured energy values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more calories than stated on the label.

Further complicating matters, according to the Tufts study, is some restaurants provided free side dishes that didn’t factor into the posted calorie count.

“If widespread, this phenomenon could hamper efforts to self-monitor energy intake to control weight, and could also reduce the potential benefit of recent policy initiatives to disseminate information on food energy content at the point of purchase,” said Susan B. Roberts, director of Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer U.S.D.A. Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, and lead investigator of the study.

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