GALLUP POLL recently conducted for the National Restaurant Association asked the following question:
In recent years, some people say they have changed their diet habits by increasing their consumption of fruits, vegetables or whole grains or by decreasing their consumption of refined sugar, animal fats or salt. Have you changed your habits in any of these ways when you eat at a restaurant or other eating place?
Jeff Prince, NRA's senior director, said he was "amazed" that 40 percent of the respondents in the poll, which has not been generally released, answered "yes." Prince termed the figure "remarkably high."
A movement is afoot to persuade restaurateurs that there is a market for fresh, light cuisine that tastes good; that a hamburger and cottage cheese is a dowdy diet plate that contains too much protein, to say nothing of fat and calories. Committees are meeting, studies are surfacing, statistics are being compiled. And it appears that restaurateurs are starting to get the messages: Broil the fish. Steam the vegetables. Hold the butter.
"The restaurant industry has discovered what the beverage industry discovered some time ago. The country is going lite," said Bruce Hinton, corporate communications manager of Long John Silver's, a chain of fried seafood restaurants that has introduced a seafood salad and an under-400-calorie baked-fish dinner.
All segments of the restaurant industry are showing interest and taking action, said Prince, primarily with upscale restaurants, but also among hotels ("particularly in demand from the business traveler") and fast food chains. Prince said the association is not advocating that the "new light fare replace everything. We just think the alternatives should be there."
Consumer organizations and industry are working together to determine the most effective ways to implement nutrition in restaurants. Spearheading the movement is Public Voice, an advocacy group concerned with food and health issues, that will be releasing later this month a 100-page study called "Nutrition and the American Restaurant." Funded by a grant from American Express Co., the study, which culminates nine months of research, will detail trends and include sample menus, lists of resources, consumer recommendations for restaurants and more than 2 dozen case studies in five U.S. cities of restaurants with nutritional programs. Pat Kelly of Public Voice said that with one-third of the food dollar spent away from home, plus the growing national interest in nutrition, it is "clear that the restaurant meal is becoming crucial" in maintaining a healthy diet.
As part of a "consciousness raising" among its members, the 10,000-member NRA plans to distribute the study, recommend menu alternatives and hire a dietician to review members' menus and recipes. NRA also has been informally discussing menu labeling with the Food and Drug Administration.
American Heart Association chapters, in their "Creative Cuisine" program, have recently published guidebooks listing restaurants willing to accommodate dieters. Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City are among the chapters already disseminating such booklets, while a guide from the Nation's Capital AHA is in the works. Some chapters, such as the Prince George's County (Md.) and Los Angeles (which calls its program "Dine to Your Heart's Content") affiliates, have been successful in using an in-restaurant approach, endorsing dishes that fit AHA guidelines for meals low in sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol and/or calories through notations on the menu.
Marriott Corp. is participating in the AHA program in its hotels, with its "Good For You" menu, which lists dry-toasted English muffins, plain yogurt and decaffeinated coffee among its offerings. Stouffer's Hotels (among them the Mayflower) has a special "Lite and Lean" menu with such entrees as chicken marsala, veal piccata and pasta salad for under 450 calories. And Hilton Hotels is planning its second Fitness First program, which according to spokesman Douglas Cole will feature "fitness-related foods with a Mexican flavor."
A restaurant in Chicago called Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter lists calorie counts on its menu board, which includes vegetarian chili and a reuben salad; Jonathan's in Chicago is gaining a city-wide reputation for its willingness to prepare any menu item without salt.
Locally, Germaine's holds the msg, and Nora uses additive-free meat. Upon request, Joe Theismann's will offer customers a dietary analysis of its menu, rating sodium, fat and carbohydrate contents of appetizers and entrees.
"What restaurants don't realize is that they can care about their clientele without ever changing what's in the restaurant," said Paulette Brown, a dietician for Rehab Inc., who did the analysis for Theismann's.
Fast food restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon, too, as evidenced by Burger King, with its salad-in-a-pita sandwich, and D'Lites, an Atlanta-based hamburger chain that is touting leaner quarter-pound hamburgers and lightly coated pressure-fried chicken filet sandwiches. In an article for "Nutrition Action," the Center for Science in the Public Interest's publication, staff nutritionist Bonnie Liebman outlined a whole array of menu suggestions for fast food restaurants. Included in Liebman's "wish you were here" list are shakes made with bananas and low-fat milk or buttermilk, seltzer water alone or mixed with fruit juice and baked sweet potatoes.
For all types of restaurants, proponents are suggesting these kinds of menu adaptions: fish and meat broiled or poached, whole wheat instead of white bread, saute'ing in small amounts of oil and butter instead of frying, sauces or dressings served on the side, fresh fruit and vegetables, low-fat yogurt, milk and cottage cheese.
Convincing the restaurateur or chef to make these changes may be one of the toughest obstacles. Margaret Prausnitz of the Baltimore chapter of the American Heart Association found that many chefs just don't know much about nutrition. "Half the time the chefs don't know what they're cooking with," she said. Instead of trying to make restaurateurs into nutritionists, changes could be simplified, says Bonnie Liebman of Center for Science in the Public Interest. Restaurateurs don't have to get into the details of how much sugar or fiber is in the dish. "You can have your dish cooked without salt," is all they have to say to the customer, suggested Liebman.
That gets into the question of labeling, an issue that gets restaurateurs "very nervous," said NRA's Prince. Just how much do people want to know about what they're eating in a restaurant? Prince says that at a recent NRA conference, the focal point of the members' discussions was whether diners want to know details such as how many milligrams of sodium are in their dinner. "The consensus is that they don't," said Prince. In addition, said Prince, the "notion of nutritional labeling all menu items in a restaurant is absurd." The menu would take "pages and pages of listings," of the dishes' ingredients (and ingredients comprised of ingredients); besides, restaurateurs would be concerned that ingredient information could be used by competitors to reproduce secret dishes. Instead, Prince suggests that labeling language convey a "brief, concrete and explicit description" of a dish's content or preparation, such as "lightly saute'ed or baked without breading."
Although Liebman agreed that "people don't want to read a computer printout of the nutritional content of their food," they do, however, want to know what the ingredients are. In upscale restaurants, content labeling would have to be done in a tasteful way, said Liebman, such as 'this dish is a delightful combination of blah, blah, blah.' " Many restaurants, she pointed out, already do this as a means to describe an entree. But "there's no excuse for fast food restaurants not to have ingredient labeling," she said, pointing out that fast food, prepared in standardized, central locations, is "identical to food in a grocery store." Nutritional labeling becomes especially important when it comes to hidden ingredients like salt. At McDonald's, for instance, "people are astonished" to learn that aside from the orange juice and soft drinks, "the least amount of salt 109 mg. per serving is in the french fries," she said. According to Liebman, a McDonald's milkshake contains 300 mg. of salt and even the apple pie has more--400 mg.
The potential for irresponsible nutritional claims is a dark shadow over restaurants getting into the nutrition business. "There're bound to be some companies or restaurants that will take advantage of the new concern with health and nutrition," said Liebman. Prince, who said that restaurateurs must be "very careful that this doesn't become a commercialized marketing gimmick," has urged members "over and over again," to have expertise on their staffs and to make sure that "any kind of claim is accurate."
Although the FDA requires content labeling when nutritional claims are made, Prince said that "at the moment is seems unlikely that there will be enforcement of this regulation in regard to restaurants."
Emil Corwin of the FDA said that for the most part, restaurants making nutritional claims would be held responsible to the local or state government that issued its operating license; the FDA has jurisdiction over only products sold in interstate commerce. The District environmental health department, for instance, already has a truth-in-menu regulation in which local restaurants must serve what the menu says; that the fish be fresh if it says so, that the Maine lobster come from that state and not from Florida. But the concept of menu labeling is so new that Corwin considers much of it a "gray area."
New menu items or adaptions of dishes could command higher prices, but Liebman said that in some cases, it should be cheaper to leave out high-cost, high-fat ingredients such as cream, meat or cheese. Portion sizes in some restaurants could be smaller, said Prince, decreasing the restaurants' costs, although "when you restaurateurs go outside the usual lines of supply and insist on fresh or non-ordinary products, you'll pay more." But it should "all balance out," said Prince, as menu alternatives should add increased volume.
Sizzler's Steak Houses is an example. In addition to grilled fish and whole wheat hamburger buns, the chain regularly stocks fresh fruit on its salad bar. "Putting fruit in salad bars in New York in the middle of winter is costly [to the restaurants]," said Rick Bricker, director of menu development at Sizzler's. "But it keeps the customers coming."