Bon Appetit’s “well-being score” gives a general indication of the healthfulness of a dish. (Bon Appetit)

Bon Appetit Management prides itself on staying ahead of culinary trends. In 1999, the food-service firm, which manages cafes at U.S. universities, museums and high-profile companies including Google and Twitter, implemented a farm-to-fork program that mandated chefs buy 20 percent of their ingredients locally. In 2005, it required that all its eggs be Certified Humane. Three years ago, it was the first in its field to sign a deal with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pay Florida tomato pickers a higher wage and to guarantee better working conditions for them.

But when clients started asking for nutrition information, company executives were stumped. Bon Appetit serves 500 locations in 32 states. Unlike most food-service companies, its chefs don’t follow corporate recipes or menu cycles that schedule meatloaf on Mondays and tilapia on Tuesdays. They cook based on what is fresh and in season. Moreover, executives weren’t sure that standard nutrition information — labels that list calories, grams of saturated fat and milligrams of sodium — were doing much to make Americans healthier. According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1980, the number of Americans who are overweight or obese has more than doubled, from 15 percent to 36 percent.

Bon Appetit’s solution was to develop its own program that generates a “well-being score” that rates the healthfulness of its prepared food. It looks like a twisty arrow and is posted, along with calorie counts, next to the name of each dish on menus at each cafe station. If the arrow is green, the dish is full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low in fat, sodium and sugar. If it isn’t or is only partially colored, diners looking for a healthful meal might want to choose something else. This fall, the company is piloting the system at Duke and Case Western Reserve universities.

Since August when the scores were first posted, the response has been enthusiastic. At Case Western in Cleveland, an overwhelming majority of students reported in a dining services survey last month that they prefer Bon Appetit’s well-being score over traditional nutrition labels.

No wonder. Bon Appetit’s system is the Goldilocks of food labels: There’s not too much information to confuse consumers. But there’s not so little as to be meaningless. In place of percentages and long lists of ingredients is an easy, instant visual distillation of healthfulness.

To develop its system, Bon Appetit asked chefs and registered dietitians a basic question. In a perfect world, what information do people need to make good decisions about what to eat?

The answer: a score that puts the dish in context and makes it easy to compare it with other options. Most people, with the exception of those with allergies or serious health ailments, don’t want to know exactly how much fat or salt is in that white pizza with shrimp and basil, the experts said. They want to see, quickly and clearly, how it compares with other options.

“There may be a day where you want the less-healthy option, when you are treating yourself,” said Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appetit’s vice president of strategy. “We want to give people options and let them make the choice.”

The next step was to find a software program that would provide that perspective without keeping chefs shackled to their desks doing data entry. Bon Appetit looked at commercial nutrition software but found it lacking: Many of the ingredients in those databases, such as stocks and vinaigrettes, are processed and contain added salt and sugar to make them shelf-stable. Bon Appetit makes its stocks and salad dressings from scratch.

There were also too many choices for chefs computing the nutritional information for individual dishes. Entering a salad recipe meant having to choose from dozens of lettuce entries: chopped, leaves, wedge, iceberg, romaine, mesclun mix, etc. It took too much time. Providing that level of detail wasn’t necessary to get the holistic picture the company wanted to offer diners.

Bon Appetit decided to build its own, much-simplified program that asks for only what it needs to produce the well-being score and calorie information. Chefs enter the types of ingredients (high-water-content vegetables, starchy vegetables, lean proteins) and the quantities. The system deducts points for saturated fats, sodium and added sugars, and adds points for whole grains, fruits and vegetables. At Case Western, a dish of kung pao chicken and pineapple with braised bok choy gets a perfect well-being score while the pad Thai tamarind fish with snow peas, which sounds pretty healthful, gets a zero. Though you might not guess it, the pad Thai contains more than 1,850 milligrams of sodium per plate — about three-quarters of the federal recommended daily allowance for healthy adults.

Curtis Wong, the sous-chef at Duke University’s Great Hall cafe in Durham, was skeptical of the program at first. Like many of Bon Appetit’s chefs, he had worked in restaurants and worried that the system would limit the ingredients he could use and the dishes he could create.

While he says the software has taken some getting used to, Wong now likes it. Entering a recipe takes only about five minutes, he says, and it gives him instant feedback on the recipes he is developing. When he sees that a dish has a low score, he can cut back on the butter or salt to improve it. Other times, he may decide to leave a creamy chicken noodle dish as is but add a lighter offering: say, Moroccan lentil patties with yogurt sauce.

Could Bon Appetit’s system be a model for the packaged-food industry that is in search of one? Last year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Institute of Medicine unveiled dueling proposals for front-of-package labeling to cut through consumer confusion. (The industry is moving ahead with its marketing-driven concept while the Food and Drug Administration mulls new regulations.) And this month, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman floated his idea of a dream food label that would provide information on nutrition, plus sustainability and a quality he called “foodness,” that indicates a lack of processing. Bittman’s is an intriguing idea, but it packs far more information than most people might want or need. (Quantifying sustainability and “foodness” is also politically impossible.)

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, is no fan of most food labeling plans. She wishes people would just relax and eat their vegetables. Still, she admired Bon Appetit’s effort, calling the scheme “better than most because it goes beyond counting nutrients and gives points for real foods. Its logo is also easy to understand: The greener, the better.” 

The fierce debate about how to make nutrition information more consumer-friendly no doubt will continue. Meanwhile, Bon Appetit’s customers already have had the problem solved for them. One day we may all be as lucky.

Black, a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.