Restaurant Association highlights industry's nutritional progress

Oct. 8, 2013 | by Alicia Kelso

The National Restaurant Association has released its "On The Menu: Restaurant Nutrition Initiatives" report, with insight into nutrition trends and initiatives throughout the restaurant industry. It is the first comprehensive report released by the NRA on this topic.

"Nutrition and wellness are a top priority for the restaurant industry," said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO, NRA. "With consumers having an increased interest in health and nutrition, particularly over the past several years, our industry continues to find ways to meet the growing demand for nutritious options. This report highlights the great work restaurants are doing to promote health and wellness, as well as the challenges and goals currently facing the industry."

In the NRA's 2013 Industry Forecast, children's nutrition, gluten-free food and health/nutrition were all identified as a top culinary trend for the year. Seventy-one percent of consumers said they tried to eat more healthfully at restaurants than they did two years ago.

"The growing awareness by consumers about what is on their plates has been fascinating. Consumers want to know more about where food comes from, under what conditions it's produced and the social and environmental impact of food production. There is an expanding interest in health and nutrition, especially among young patrons," Joan McGlockton, NRA VP of Industry Affairs and Food Policy, wrote in the report.

Operators seem to be mindful of the trend — 86 percent of consumers reported that restaurants offer more healthful options than they did two years ago.

Kids LiveWell

The report offered a look into the NRA's Kids LiveWell program, which was created in 2011 and has grown from 19 restaurant brands and 15,000 locations to 145 brands representing 42,000 locations. The report calls the program, which was created in collaboration with Healthy Dining, "one of the NRA's most successful initiatives."

Wendy's is one of the most recent brands to sign on, which it did in July. As part of its Kids LiveWell commitment, the chain added two meal options — a grilled chicken wrap with sliced apples, and a kids' meal hamburger with sliced apples. Drink choices for both meals include Juicy Juice 100-percent apple juice, TruMoo 1 percent low fat white milk and Nestle bottled water.

Since its inception, the NRA has created a variety of marketing initiatives to continue getting the word out about the Kids LiveWell program, including:

  • The NRA Show's Healthier Kids Fare, with exhibitors showcasing products that focus on kids' nutrition;
  • Reaching out to "mom bloggers," including attendance at the annual BlogHer conference for women in social media;
  • The Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge: A contest that recognizes menu items that meet the program’s USDA and Institute of Medicine’s guidelines. Last year’s winners included Qdoba Mexican Grill and Tim Horton’s. The second annual challenge is underway, with applications due in December;
  • Partnering with national leaders such as First Lady Michelle Obama for her Let’s Move campaign.

Nutritional information

In addition to kids' nutrition, the NRA's report covers the organization's efforts to make nutritional content of restaurant food more readily available for consumers. The NRA has worked with Congress to establish menu labeling standards, and ensuring the regulations are "flexible and fair to restaurant operators." That law was passed in 2010 and the information will be required to be on display as early as this year.

Also, the NRA is participating in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and will conduct meetings throughout 2014 as the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services gear up to release their 2015 Dietary Guidelines (released every five years).

Included in the NRA's presentation will be information about the industry's progress in sodium reduction, and the addition of more produce and whole grains to menus. An example of this program is Tim Hortons, which recently released its Responsibility report touting its sodium reduction — to date, Tim Hortons has reduced sodium in soups (31 percent), deli meats (49 percent) and muffins (22 percent).

Chick-fil-A also announced this year that it is actively working to reduce sodium across its menu, including a 40 percent sodium reduction in its chargrilled chicken filet, 25 percent less sodium in breads and removing 10 percent of sodium in dressings and sauces.

And the effort now includes the QSR staple of French fries. Burger King's new "Satisfries" contain about 190 calories, 8 grams of fat and 201 milligrams of sodium (compared to 410 calories, 18 grams and 570 mg of sodium in its standard fries).

Gluten-free compliance

Such policy discussions also now include gluten-free compliance. In August, the FDA released new standards to define "gluten-free" for the food industry. According to the NRA, about 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease and more than 1.6 million people without the disease follow a gluten-free diet.

Restaurants and manufacturers who market food as "gluten-free" must meet the FDA's new definition. To help operators understand the new regulation, the NRA is rolling out a series of educational sessions this fall.

Also, the NRA's ServSafe program is adding a new course to help restaurants serve the 15 million Americans with food allergies, according to the report. It was developed with the help of the nonprofit organization, Food Allergy Research and Education.

"The online training course will help restaurant personnel better understand the precautions they need to take related to food allergens, as well as customer needs," the report said.

Continuing challenges

Despite the progress made in kids' nutrition, menu labeling and allergen training, challenges remain. Joy Dubost, director of Nutrition Policy at the NRA, said one of those challenges is waiting for final regulations on how to implement menu-labeling laws and educating operators about compliance.

Also, food-related issues such as obesity are not going away.

"We have to help members address emerging issues such as food allergies, and public health concerns, such as saturated fat and sugar in the diet," Dubost wrote. "We will continue to work to address those challenges."

Read more about health and nutrition trends.

Cover photo provided by Wikimedia.

Topics: Health & Nutrition , Operations Management , Staffing & Training , Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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