Mike Schaeffer's Weblog
Fri, 24 Mar 2006
Restaurant Nutritional Information
No geek stuff today....

The FDA has done a good job of requiring packaged food to be labled with nutritional information, but when you eat out, that food can fall through the cracks. Some restaurants make solid attempts at making the information available: Red Lobster actually puts nutritional information for selected products right on the menu. However, even Red Lobster has limits: they only list information for their LightHouse menu, their menu of lighter fare. Go to their website, and you can see their position on the rest of their menu: "Since our chefs are continuously creating and customizing recipes for our menu, we only have Red Lobster's LightHouse menu information available online.". That rings a little hollow once you realize that dishes like their Crab Alfredo have been on the menu for decades. Of course, what's really going on is that Red Lobster knows that publishing information on the 2,000 calories (that's a guess) in a plate of Crab Alfredo will kill their sales. After all, restaurants are supposed to be a fun treat, not a tiptoe through a nuturitional minefield.

Like you'd expect, some restaurants are better than others. P. F. Chang's China Bistro (wonderful Americanized Chinese food, you should try it if you haven't) does the ultimate: they put all of their nutritional information online. That's everything from the 56 calorie cup of Hot and Sour soup to the 1,883 calorie "Great Wall of Chocolate". Good show (even if it is buried beneath some inconvenient JavaScript). McDonald's is also noteworthy: they have complete nutritional information available in the store, before

Moving down a bit are restaurants like Jason's Deli. Jason's deli claims that "We provide our nutritional information in Adobe Acrobat .pdf format.". However, once you open the PDF file, they ask you to send a mail asking for each piece of nuturitional information seperately. I don't know what their expectation is (do I really need to list every nutritional variable for every menu item?), but the evidence seems to indicate their closing the information up, rather than making it more open. Another trick is on Firehouse Subs' website. They publish nutritional information, but they fail to include cheese or mayo in their calorie counts (which are served by default) in their table of figures. If you order a stock medium sandwhich and skim the chart, you're liable to understimate the calorie count by 30-40%. In fact, the only way you can get the total calorie count of a completely dressed sandwich is to know that there are 9 calories per gram of fat.

I don't know what percentage of calories our country consumes comes through restaurants, but I do know that it's been increasing for a long time. As a result, it seems reasonable for the FDA to mandate that restaurants make nutritional information easily available in the store, at the time of purchase. To avoid too much adverse impact on smaller restaurants, perhaps this could be means tested: restaurants serving fewer than X people per day could be excluded, etc. Either way, I want to be able to know what I'm eating.

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