Feeling the Heat: Chain Restaurants Reformulate Unhealthy Fare Due to Good Nutrition Policy

Policy change has been a shared goal of all food reformers. So why haven’t advocates seemed to notice or acknowledge that several recently implemented policies are stimulating healthy changes to restaurant fare?

For example, take the recent menu reformulation pledge from the Darden Restaurant Group, parent company of the Olive Garden and Red Lobster, which serves over 400 million meals a year. With the First Lady, Michelle Obama, in attendance, Darden announced that it will reduce its calorie and sodium footprints by 10 percent in five years and 20 percent in ten years through menu reformulation, portion resizing and removing/introducing menu items.  It also pledged to provide more healthy choices on its children’s menus and make low-fat milk, and fruits and vegetables, the default for every kid’s meal, rather than soda and French fries.

While the media focused exclusively on Michelle Obama’s role in this announcement (and indeed the First Lady deserves high praise for issuing hard challenges to the food industry and for creating an extraordinary level of awareness about childhood obesity), it’s clear that Darden and other chains are really feeling the heat due to the impending implementation of federal menu labeling policy in 2012.

The menu labeling law, which was passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, requires that food establishments with 20 or more locations provide calorie information on menus and menu boards. Additional nutrition information such as sodium, total fat, sugars, and carbs must be provided in written form, upon request. Similar laws have been passed and implemented around the nation and our organization, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA), spearheaded successful campaigns to get these laws enacted in a number of New York State locales including Albany, Westchester and Ulster counties.

While the main purpose of menu labeling is to provide consumers with calorie counts at point of purchase to help them make informed choices, many health advocates have long believed that the true value of the law will lie in the reformulation it spurs. That belief is panning out.

Ever since the first menu labeling law was implemented in New York City in 2008, revealing astronomical calorie counts for single serve items, chain restaurants have been on the defensive and reformulating menu items to make them healthier. Significant reformulation has been noted at Starbucks, Applebee’s, Quiznos, Taco Bell, Denny’s, Uno Chicago Grill, Le Pain Quotidien, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonalds, Cosi and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which managed to squeeze an eye-opening 880 calories out of just one salad. Nutrition Information Services, an Orlando-based consulting firm that analyzes and reformulates restaurant recipes, reported an 80 percent jump in its business in 2008 and 100 percent in 2009, which can be directly traced to local menu labeling laws enacted in New York City and Seattle.

The impending federal menu labeling law and the passage of several local ordinances that set nutrition standards for kid’s meals sold with toys, have also spurred additional restaurant pledges and reformulations. This past July, as part of a National Restaurant Association initiative, 19 large restaurant chains — including Burger King, Chili’s, IHOP and Friendly’s — pledged to promote and include healthier options on their children’s menus like fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy. And in August, McDonald’s introduced, with great fanfare, its new Happy Meal, which boasts apple slices, a smaller portion of fries and a lower calorie count.

In light of these developments, it’s safe to say smart food and nutrition policies, or even the threat of such policies, can force healthy changes in industry. Looking back, it’s hard not to recall that the restaurant industry has fought almost every nutrition policy tooth and nail over the past decade, arguing that self-regulation is far preferable to legislation. Now that policy has backed them into a corner, chain restaurants are doing what large, deep pocketed corporations do best – they are in a self-congratulatory PR frenzy and hopeful that consumers view their brands favorably for their so-called voluntary changes.

Now I know what some food reformers have been saying about these chain restaurant pledges. Why does Darden need 10 years to make these changes and can we trust them to keep their promise? These changes aren’t nearly enough — a 20 percent calorie reduction in the Red Lobster’s Crispy Calamari and Vegetable Appetizer (1520 calories) isn’t going to make a big enough dent. A McDonald’s Happy Meal with a handful of apple slices and fewer fries still isn’t a healthy meal. My answer to those criticisms is you’re right. But when you are working to change the practices of multi-billion dollar public corporations that answer to shareholders, you have to be satisfied with incremental change. No chain restaurant in its right mind is going to slash calories and sodium 50 percent in a short period of time and risk losing customers. As far as trusting Darden and others, I think the old saying is trust but verify. With menu labeling about to be implemented it’s going to be a lot harder for Darden to ignore its pledge.

It’s very rewarding to see healthy menu reformulation motivated by policy. And I think these positive changes are only the beginning. Food reformers must continue to work for the passage of additional food and nutrition policies like nutrition standards for foods marketed to children, reallocation of farm subsidies, sugary drink taxes, and federal nutrition standards for kids’ meals sold with toys. No doubt these laws will drive more far more change than industry self-regulation ever will.

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