Seen any recent changes in how your favorite restaurants portray the more nutritious offerings on their menu? If so, it probably reflects efforts by the nation's eateries to conform to a new element of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. As of May 2, any restaurant making nutritional claims for its food or meal combos must be prepared to back up that claim.
In effect, the new regulation extends those now-familiar nutrition labeling requirements from grocery-store packaging to the freshly prepared fare in your local eatery. But there are a few critical differences. For instance:
"I think the new rules are a good start" to help diners eat smart, says Leila Farzan, a staff attorney with Center for Science in the Public Interest. However, because of the above-mentioned limitations, she argues that "consumers still need to watch out and use common sense."
Indeed, she charges, the really large portions that restaurants typically serve can compromise the intent of the new regs. For instance, a menu can legally make the low-fat claim, which usually translates into a few grams of fat per normal-size serving, "yet deliver you something that's equal in size to three or four reasonable servings -- so you end up with food containing up to 12 grams of fat."
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act permits only a small list of specifically approved health claims. The new restaurant rules apply to menus using any of the following terms: -free, low-, reduced, lean, extra lean, light or lite, fresh, natural, and healthy. Other regulated phrases include: provides, contains, is a good (or excellent) source of, is high in, or rich in something.
FDA has established rules for using each of these terms. For instance, a food satisfies the low-fat claim only if contains no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams of food. To qualify as having "no" fat, it must contain less than 0.5 grams per 100 grams of food.
Initially, FDA notes, some restaurants may take the path of least resistance and merely excise any of those triggering terms from its menus. However, Farzan doesn't expect that avoidance to continue for very long. "I think the public demand for healthier food options is there. Most restaurants realize it and will therefore give consumers what they demand."
It's a message that the National Restaurants Association has been driving home to its members for several years. A recent report of dining trends in its magazine, Restaurants USA, for instance, noted that especially among the Baby Boomer generation, "fruits and low-fat dairy products have experienced strong increases in consumption, while red meat, refined sugar and eggs have posted consumption declines." Over the past decade, it reports, "consumers' modified behavior to reduce fat intake appears to have been reflected in increased frozen-yogurt and skim-milk . . . The same health-conscious mentality may also partially explain the growth in vegetable oil consumption at the same time that consumption of animal fats has declined."
Many cooking schools are also appreciating the need for healthier recipes. For instance, classes at the Culinary Institute of America -- the Hyde Park, N.Y. institution that bills itself as the world's only residential college devoted entirely to culinary education -- "demonstrate a need for them," observes Cathy Powers, a registered dietician on its staff.
People are dining out more than ever. And increasingly, she notes, physicians are encouraging their patients to eat healthier foods, both at home and away. "These two factors are really pushing the food service industry to make changes," she says.
The trick is learning how to provide menu offerings that respond to these changing food preferences and needs, she says. Early on, many chefs merely tried to substitute a healthier ingredient here or there to an existing recipe. "But adapting or modifying classical recipes just sets you up for failure," Powers maintains, "because you never meet the customers' expectations." Though a modified seafood newburg, for instance, maybe delicious, she notes that "it still isn't going to taste the way the classical one did."
Toward that end, her institution has a laboratory with 30 computers to help CIA's students develop new recipes, based on precise data about the nutrient composition of their experimental ingredients -- and how they dovetail with FDA health-labeling terms. These programs also encourage chefs to reevaluate food portions and cooking techniques, such as limiting excessive use of fats or saturated fats. For example, Powers says, they might consider using 4 ounces of meat instead of 8 ounces and then increasing the portion of fruits, vegetables, and grains in a meal.
All dining establishments are subject to the new FDA regs -- from the neighborhood deli counter to chain restaurants. Even food purveyors with carry-out or delivery-only meals are covered.
Not surprisingly, many restaurateurs strenuously objected to this requirement when first proposed in the 1990 statute, arguing that it could prove confusing, burdensome, and costly. On Jan. 6, 1993, the FDA bought that argument, exempting menus from the rule. Two months later, when Public Citizen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- two Washington, D.C.-based public-interest groups -- launched a lawsuit challenging that exemption, FDA recanted. In promising new menu rules, FDA asked the court to issue a stay on the lawsuit. The court complied.
In January 1995, impatient at FDA's lack of action by on this matter, Public Citizen and the Center for Science petitioned the court to resume their lawsuit. Last June 28, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled that FDA had no discretion to ignore Congress' decision to have restaurant foods -- and the menus describing them -- carry the labeling requirements. So a little more than 1 month later, FDA finalized the rules that went into effect this month.
Sitting at the local bistro, you scan the chalk board listing the day's specials and decide to order its "heart-healthy" fish dish. To your amazement, however, what you receive is quite salty and dripping with buttery flavored oil -- something you should not have encountered.
If you report it, will the feds quickly dispense a squad of food police? Indeed, this concern over how the new regulations may be enforced "has become the question of the month," notes Michelle A. Smith, a food technologist in FDA's Office of Food Labeling.
To date, FDA has spelled out no specific sanctions for violators, she notes. Moreover, "we have tried to take a flexible approach." She says that "for restaurants that have made a good-faith effort to try to comply, our first step would be to work with them."
It may turn out that some eatery hadn't done enough training of its kitchen staff, she says, so the cooks "are still salting to taste instead of following prescribed recipes" -- or eyeballing how much butter to drizzle over the top of a finished dish instead of carefully spooning out only as much as the recipe specifies. In such cases, Smith says, FDA would try to help a restaurant sort out the source of the problem rather than push for instant prosecution.
However, she adds, "because FDA doesn't have the resources to get involved in enforcement actions in any big way, we expect that most of any enforcement will be done at the state and local level" -- usually by consumer protection offices or health departments. So how any violation was managed could vary by region "and even on a case-by-case basis."
She notes that "a few calls that I've gotten from restaurateurs have been concerns that if they did something wrong, chains would appear on the doors of their establishment." In fact, Smith told Science News Online, "I don't think that's a likely scenario."
CREDIT for art: Richard Thompson Jr./FDA Consumer
Food and Drug Administration. 1996. Food labeling; nutrient content claims and health claims; restaurant foods. Federal Register 61(Aug. 2):40320.
Kurtzweil, P. 1997. Today's special: Nutrition Information. FDA Consumer 31(May/June):20.
Masur, D. 1996. A booming boomer business. Restaurants USA 16(August):40.
American Institute for Cancer Research. Cook's Day Off. E61-CD/E13.
Broihier, C. 1996. Decoding the new menu-labeling regulations. Restaurants USA 16(October):36.
Center for Science in the Public Interest. 1997. A diner's guide to health and nutrition claims on restaurant menus. Guidelines to help educate consumers about using and interpreting the new menu nutrient information. Available online at http://www.cspinet.org.
Crosby, M.A. 1996. Healthy Cooking 101: CIA teaches students the fine art of preparing nutritious fare. Restaurants USA 16(September):27.
Raloff, J. 1997. Eating Out. Science News Online, Food For Thought (May 3, 1997).
Food and Drug Administration (HFI-40)
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Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Phone: 202-332-9110; Fax: 202-265-4954
National Restaurant Association
1200 17th Street, N.W.
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Michelle A. Smith
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Food and Drug Administration
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Washington, DC 20204
Consumer Hotline: 1-800-332-4010
This week's Food for Thought is prepared by Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News.