Commentary

Study: 96% Of Restaurant Items Exceed USDA's Recommendations

A Rand Corp. study of 28,433 regular and 1,833 children's menu items in 245 national chain restaurants finds that a whopping 96% of them fail to meet recommendations for the combination of calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

The findings were published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition this week. The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has made childhood obesity a major strategic initiative.

 “If you're eating out tonight, your chances of finding an entree that's truly healthy are painfully low,” Helen Wu, the assistant policy analyst at Rand who oversaw the study tellsUSA Today’s Bruce Horovitz. “The restaurant industry needs to make big changes to be part of the solution.”

Horovitz, who refers to the study as “provocative” in his lede, also talks to the National Restaurant Association’s vp of food policy, Joan McGlockton, who points out that the industry is "employing a wide range" of healthier-living strategies,” including “putting nutritional information on menus, adding more healthful items and launching a 2011 program at nearly 100 brands in more than 25,000 locations that offers children's meals in line with 2010 dietary guidelines.”

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For this program, the NRA is working with the nutrition website HealthyDiningFinder.com. The Kids LiveWell program’s mission is “to assist parents and children in selecting healthful menu options when dining out,” according to the website. It’s a voluntary program.

 

Specific criteria for both full kids' meals (entrée, side option and beverage) and side dishes alone must be met for the restaurant to be included on the “dietitian-approved” compilation. The criteria for a full meal, for example, are: 600 calories or less; less than 35% of calories from total fat; less than 10% of calories from saturated fat; less than 0.5 grams artificial trans fat; less than 35% of calories from total sugars; less than 770 mg of sodium; two or more food group.

Yes, there’s an iPhone app for finding nearby restaurants -- including such popular ones as Applebee’s, Burger King, iHop and Sonic -- when you’re on the go. More than 50 chains are currently listed. Just how effective the program has been, though, is difficult to gauge, reports Carol Tice in Forbes. When she called around to see, she discovered that chains were reluctant to release sales figures for individual items.

“As a mom, I know it’s one thing to put a healthy meal on a menu and another to get a kid to eat it,” she writes. And, “with the lack of disclosure by the chains, only time will tell if healthier kids meals are catching on,” she writes. “As high-minded as they’d like to be, there’s a basic rule in the restaurant business: Menu real estate is valuable, and you don’t keep offering items customers don’t want.”

Tice also points out that “some of the more fattening parts of the meal, such as salad dressing, appetizers, and dessert, aren’t included in the calorie count.”

iHop, for one, touts that all of its Just For Kids menus for children under 12 have less than 600 calories -- even the Funny Face “big chocolate chip pancake dusted with powdered sugar and a whipped topping smile,” which weights in at 450 calories. Add hot fudge to that Kid's Ice Cream Sundae you reward your child with for eating so mindfully, however, and you’ve piled on another 320 calories -- but that information is buried in a PDF on the website.

And, as Wu points out to Horovitz, “appetizers can be calorie bombs.”  They average 813 calories, compared with 674 calories per serving for main entrees.

Indeed, most of the entrees studied by Rand researchers did not exceed 667 calories -- one-third of the calories the USDA estimates the average adult needs each day -- Wu and senior economist Roland Sturm tell the Los Angeles Times Mary MacVean, but that’s just part of the picture.

“Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria,” says Wu. Excess sodium, as you probably guessed, is one leading culprit.

Then there’s servicing sizes. “Pizza restaurants often listed an entrée as one slice -- good luck with that,” writes MacVean. “Or a single piece of fried chicken. Really?”

“This could end up being very confusing for consumers,” Wu says.

The United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC), a new organization with a mission “to revolutionize how and what Americans eat by partnering with foodservice providers and altering the foodservice industry’s incentives to provide more healthful and more natural food offerings,” launched in Washington, D.C. ten days ago.

In a press release, organization points out that Americans now spend 50% of their food dollars -- and consume the majority of their calories -- at restaurants and other foodservice establishments. It aims “to distinguish … providers that are utilizing nutrition best practices such as the use of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruits, whole grains, moderate portions sizes, and minimally processed food and beverages with higher nutritional qualities, while decreasing the use of additives …”

Everything’s got to start somewhere but so far there just a handful of establishments on its “Featured Restaurants” list and -- we’re just guessing here -– we don’t expect to find McDonald’s, despite having added “juicy apple slices” to its Happy Meals offering, recommended anytime soon. 

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