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“When you say a product lacks any of these three components, it can make peoples’ ears perk, but that’s not necessarily an indicator that the food is particularly healthful or nutritious,” Kava says. “There’s more at play here.”
Indeed, despite more than a decade of discussion, research, and mounting attention, the truth regarding trans fat, HFCS, and sodium is not as clear as many would like. Each of the dietary components continues to have its supporters and opponents, at once considered both a vice and a miscast target of the nation’s collective health woes. While few will champion the dietary factors as “healthy,” particularly in more-than-necessary amounts, the debate intensifies over each component’s potential detriment.
Quick-serve operators have been left to figure out what to do with their own menus. But experts interviewed for this story say the path forward is clear: Abide by the regulators who demand compliance and the customers who demand consistent quality.
Willett says regulations need not be viewed with such derision. In fact, he contends that set guidelines can help businesses succeed and meet diners’ best interests. “For even the most well-intentioned companies, it can be difficult to do the right thing when competitors are not,” he says. “Regulations can create a level playing field.”
Willett hopes, however, that restaurants will take a more proactive approach before regulations force marketplace action. He considers the industry’s increasing attention to trans fat as a positive sign that restaurants desire healthier offerings.
Health crusaders further charge that restaurants’ attentiveness to these dietary factors represents a matter of social responsibility. “There’s a lot of power in looking at menu ingredients and sub-recipes to gauge the negative nutrients and rebalance,” Healthy Dining Finder’s Jones-Mueller says. “With greater menu transparency, restaurants are in the driver’s seat to create change.”
Voting with their dollars, consumers will likely hold an even greater voice than rule-happy regulators.
“Internal discussions [among restaurant leaders] should be around what’s most important for the restaurant to provide healthful food for its guests,” Kava says. “If lowering certain components is what your consumers want, then it’s simply a good play to respond.”
Boston Market’s Bittorf says that while consumers have become more informed, quick-service restaurants also have better tools to monitor consumer insights and decide how to adapt.
“Boston Market has continued to remain competitive by listening to what our customers want and don’t want, from menu items to ingredients,” Bittorf says.
Many advocates argue that restaurants need little more than a proactive mindset and motivated investment to create healthier, cleaner food that retains its flavor. In an audit of Harvard Dining, Willett and colleagues found that sodium levels could be decreased by 25 percent with what he calls “little effort.”
“I hope as an industry we can show that restaurants have a desire to creae and offer healthy, appealing menu items,” Jones-Mueller says.
While Subway openly shares its nutritional numbers both in store and on its website; cut sodium across its menu by 15 percent; and removed trans fats from baked goods, the sandwich chain has not actively promoted its reformulations.
“The changes we make need to be invisible to the consumer,” says Subway director of marketing development Michelle Cordial. “The minute you tell someone the product’s healthy, they often assume that means less tasty, and we’ve worked for years to be a concept that provides better-for-you products high in flavor.”
Leaders at Subway also fear they would spark needless confusion by touting every nutritional change and, furthermore, they understand the hot-button nutritional target can shift. Today’s conversation might target trans fat, HFCS, and sodium; tomorrow’s might challenge saturated fat, gluten, and the glycemic index.
“We’ll continue monitoring foodservice trends and assess what’s catching the attention of nutritional advocates and consumers,” Subway spokesman Les Winograd says.
A pragmatist, Herring admits distinguishing fact from fiction in the trans fat, HFCS, and sodium conversation has become increasingly difficult to navigate given its complexity and the range of conflicting opinions. At Jason’s Deli, he says, the company’s task is not to run food labs, but to be responsible, customer-pleasing operators.
“We’re not food scientists, but food people,” Herring says. “Ultimately, we believe in balance and, to us, that seems the safest way to go.”