Health | May 2014 | By Barney Wolf

Courting Calorie Counters

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Healthier quick service restaurant menus serve healthier minded customers.
McAlister’s Veggie Club and Fire Roasted Veggie Soup McAlister’s
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Subway, known for offering low-calorie alternatives, created a trio of 3-inch morning flatbread sandwiches—Steak, Egg White, and Cheese; Egg White and Cheese; and Ham, Egg White, and Cheese—that each carry fewer than 200 calories.

“We actually were not specifically targeting 200 calories,” says Lanette Kovachi, senior dietician, in an email. But with egg whites, lean meats, and smaller portions of bread and cheese, the sandwiches offered less fat and “also happened to be under 200 calories.”

This allows consumers to choose a sandwich, a side like apples, and a beverage, and “still have a sensible breakfast that does not break the calorie bank,” she says.

The breakfast sandwiches complement Subway’s eight 6-inch Fresh Fit sandwiches on the regular menu. All have fewer than 370 calories, and most include at least one protein, such as chicken, turkey, ham, or roast beef.

It’s not unusual for restaurants to launch low-calorie menus at the beginning of the year to take advantage of consumers’ resolutions to lose weight. This is usually accomplished with existing lower-calorie menu items.

That’s what McAlister’s Deli did in developing its Lite Choose Two menu, featuring more than 200 items—sandwiches, soups, salads, and potatoes—that can be paired but still clock in at fewer than 600 calories.

“We looked at the industry and saw some restaurants’ low-calorie menus had 600 calories, while some did 500,” says Frank Paci, president and chief executive. “We just believed we had a lot more choices for customers at 600 calories.”

The combos feature two smaller-size items, like a half-sandwich and cup of soup. They range from the Turkey Melt sandwich and Fire-Roasted Vegetable Soup (370 calories) to the McAlister’s Club sandwich and Chicken Tortilla Soup (590 calories).

“We’ve had the regular Choose Two menu for years, allowing guests to customize,” Paci says. “We took that and are presenting it by calories.”

Although the menu was planned only as a promotion for the first quarter of last year, McAlister’s decided to make it more permanent, putting the menu on laminated cards because guests were asking for it, Paci says. Its popularity proves “you don’t have to sacrifice flavor for calories,” he says.

Boston Market used a similar philosophy by creating a roster of 100 meals with fewer than 550 calories. Many of the meals feature the chain’s signature rotisserie chicken, chicken breast, or turkey, plus one or two regular side dishes. A large percentage of the regular menu fits in this category.

“That’s what we love about it,” says Sara Bittorf, chief marketing officer. “It’s a great opportunity to eat well and not feel like you’re depriving yourself.”

The quarter-chicken dark meat, along with sweet corn and garlic dill potatoes, for instance, has 530 calories, which is the same as the turkey with mashed potatoes, poultry gravy, and steamed vegetables.

Boston Market, based in Golden, Colorado, considered adding new menu items to its under-550-calorie offerings, but decided it had enough options, Bittorf says. “We feel we have one of the most extensive low-calorie menus in the fast-casual category,” she says.

The low-calorie effort is a byproduct of the chain’s interest in offering healthful items. Offering naturally lean chicken and turkey and cooking the chicken on spits so the fat drips off keeps the calories down. The chain’s poultry gravy is only 10 calories, so “it feels like an indulgence to have chicken and gravy or turkey and gravy,” Bittorf says.

Not all lower-calorie menus are recent. Taco Bell launched its Fresco menu several years ago, featuring special versions of the steak or chicken Burrito Supreme, the Crunchy Taco, and Soft Tacos with steak, chicken, or seasoned beef.

“Our customers love the flavors of our Mexican-inspired food, and Fresco was the answer,” says Missy Nelson, a nutritionist on the company’s product development team, of diners who wanted Taco Bell menu items but with fewer calories and less fat.

This was accomplished by replacing cheese and any mayonnaise-based sauces in regular items with pico de gallo made daily in each restaurant. All of the Fresco items have fewer than 350 calories and 10 grams of fat. The fan favorites, Nelson says, are the Crunchy Taco (150 calories with beef compared with 170 calories on the regular menu) and Soft Taco with beef (160 calories versus 190 calories).

Each regular item on the menuboard with a Fresco version has the words Make it Fresco below it. “A great thing about us is we are all about customization, so you can Fresco-style almost any item at no extra cost,” Nelson says.

Even individual franchisees of some companies developed their own menus that feature lower-calorie items. For instance, the northeast Ohio Panera Bread franchisee teamed up with the noted Cleveland Clinic to develop a heart-healthy menu. Covelli Enterprises, Panera’s largest franchisee, presented a list of menu items and meals to the hospital, which pared it down to meet certain criteria: 4 grams or less of saturated fat, no trans fats, 600 grams of sodium, and whole grains instead of refined ones.

Calories aren’t specifically restricted, but “you’re limited calories” by the criteria, says Julia Renee Zumpano, cardiovascular dietician at the clinic.

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