Chain restaurants such as KFC, Uno and Starbucks are finding that calories count

By Jane Black
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Eating better" is a perennial new year's resolution, and this year, your chain restaurants are here to help. KFC has a 395-calorie grilled chicken meal, served with green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy. Uno Chicago Grill is selling a 550-calorie roasted vegetable and feta wrap on a whole-wheat and flaxseed tortilla. Next week, Starbucks will introduce four sandwiches with 400 calories or fewer. And all of the coffee company's 11,000 or so stores will launch a campaign to promote beverages under 90 calories.

Give the customers what they want, the old saying goes. But such offerings were not designed just for new-year dieters. Restaurant chains across the country are reformulating fat- and calorie-laden items and introducing lighter, more healthful options in preparation for federal menu labeling requirements that are part of the health-care reform that President Obama hopes to soon sign into law. Washington's Silver Diner chain, for instance, cut the calories of its grilled flounder dinner by 34 percent, from 1,088 to 718. Bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien has introduced bite-size brownies with 77 percent fewer calories than their regular-size counterparts.

Restaurants had long fought such government control; the industry tied up a New York City regulation in court for two years before the rule finally went into effect in 2008. But with 26.6 percent of Americans considered obese and 48 percent of food dollars spent on food eaten outside the home, fast-food and chain restaurants are an easy legislative target. Consumer interest in healthful eating -- more than 1 million customers accessed nutrition information through Starbucks' iPhone application in the first three months it was available -- has helped persuade the industry to support uniform national regulations.

If enacted, the health-care reform law would mandate that chains with more than 20 outlets must post calories on the menu in a "clear and conspicuous" manner and provide complete nutritional information upon request. Public-health advocates hope the rules go into effect within two years.

Whether disclosing calories on a menu will change consumer behavior remains the subject of contentious debate, but a new study [PDF] supports the idea that it can: An analysis of 100 million transactions over 14 months at Starbucks by researchers at Stanford University showed that when calories were posted prominently, the average number of calories per transaction fell by 6 percent.

The researchers didn't investigate whether consumers ended up taking in those calories elsewhere. But they did find in a small telephone survey that restaurants in jurisdictions where calorie posting is mandatory were 58 percent more likely to offer low-calorie options than restaurants where it was not.

Anecdotal evidence bears out the theory. Austin Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, the Cheesecake Factory, Fuddruckers, Silver Diner and Sizzler, among others, are working with consulting company Nutrition Information Services to analyze and, where appropriate, make over their recipes. Some are reducing calories, sodium and fat; others are adding whole grains, the current darling of nutritionists. The Orlando-based firm says it has seen its business jump 80 percent in 2008 and 100 percent in 2009. "Legislation in New York and Seattle really forced the issue," said Jeffrey Whitlow, the company's vice president of research and development.

NIS runs ingredients used in restaurant recipes through its database of 27,000 products. If, say, sodium is too high, NIS can test how different ingredients might affect the bottom line. One national chain recently substituted a lower-density salt in all of its recipes, cutting totals by up to 40 percent, Whitlow said.

At Silver Diner, founder Ype von Hengst has used the analysis to bring one in four items on his menu under 900 calories. He altered the grilled flounder dinner by finding a new teriyaki sauce for the fish and cooking rice in vegetable oil instead of butter. He substituted a low-carb ginger dressing for the peanut sauce formerly served with Asian skewered chicken. That slashed calories by 21 percent, from 564 to 444.

"A pancake is a pancake. A strip of bacon is a strip of bacon. People expect those [at a diner], and there's nothing we can do to change that," von Hengst said. "But I also want to give them options. So where we can cut out unnecessary calories, we are doing that."

"Choice" seems to be the mantra of the restaurant industry. Many executives say they prefer to add healthful options rather than fiddle with tried-and-true sellers. "There are people who want what they want," said Frank Guidara, chief executive of Uno Chicago Grill, whose signature individual-size deep-dish pizza with "the works" has 1,920 calories. (The USDA's benchmark for daily calorie intake is 2,000.) "Maybe they are overweight and don't really care. Or they exercise a lot and burn it off. In every category, we're going to have choice."

Guidara tried to make over Uno's deep-dish pies when he arrived at the company in 2005. Company chefs experimented with different tomato sauces, cheeses and flours, such as whole wheat and flaxseed, to improve the nutritional content. After three months, executives participated in a blind taste test. "The original recipe blew away everything on the table," Guidara remembered. "We realized, this will never really be healthy."

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