The nutritional value of limited-service restaurant food has been the topic of debate among consumers, critics, and operators for some time. Growing concerns over Americans’ high obesity levels have only heightened the debate, leading some observers to encourage increased governmental regulation of food, others to urge more focus on informed, unforced choice.
Much of the talk has been about calories, because consuming too many of those without accompanying exercise results in additional pounds.
Many limited-service restaurant companies have added or emphasized lower-calorie items, launched low-cal menus, or provided data to make it easier for guests to calculate the calories in their meals. Still, some local and state governments enacted regulations requiring numerous food facilities, including restaurant operators with more than 20 units, to list calories and other nutritional data for regular food items on their menus or menuboards.
That regulation is going national as part of the Affordable Care Act. Exactly when that will occur, however, remains uncertain, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was charged with writing the regulations, has found a variety of challenges.
“There are a number of complex issues involved,” writes FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore in an email. The agency received more than 900 comments on the most recent proposal, and “is evaluating each comment before publishing a final rule.”
Although restaurants don’t always like to be told what to list on their menuboards, they should still embrace low-calorie menu items, says Hank Cardello, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “This is good business, not a moral issue,” he says.
Cardello, who also directs the conservative think tank’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, collected data on menu-item sales at 21 big restaurant chains, including nine quick-service and fast-casual companies.
“We were interested where the sales growth was coming over recent years,” he says. “It turns out that the growth came from the low-calorie items.”
To be considered “low calorie” in the study, center-of-plate items were 500 or fewer calories, while sides, appetizers, and desserts had to be no more than 150 calories. Eight-ounce beverages clocked in at 50 calories or less. Those levels allow a customer to create a balanced meal that fits in with the FDA’s recommended 2,000 calorie-per-day intake, Cardello says.
The survey found that restaurants adding low-calorie items outperformed those eateries that reduced them. For instance, same-store sales at chains adding low-cal items rose 5.5 percent from 2006 to 2011, while eateries that reduced them fell by the same percentage.
“It shows that you have to pay attention and restructure your menu to capture these customers,” Cardello says, noting that new items, such as Burger King’s Satisfries, not only have lower calories than regular menu items, but also can boost sales.
Despite the FDA’s delays, several limited-service restaurant companies, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, have already added calorie counts to their menuboards. McDonald’s began listing calories on menuboards in September 2012, a few months after launching its Favorites Under 400 menu.
That menu, which highlighted popular items with 400 or fewer calories, helps guests “make an informed decision about whether a particular menu choice could fit within their individual calorie needs,” writes spokeswoman Christina Tyler in an email.
Now that all McDonald’s in America have calorie counts on their menuboards, the 35-item Favorites Under 400 menu is only listed online.
Calorie counting is a key part of Wendy’s smartphone application, which also allows customers to find a restaurant, pay for meals, and more. Since the app was launched two years ago, it has been downloaded nearly one million times.
Wendy’s research indicated that many guests were interested in nutrition, and the company decided that it could do more with its menu database than just churn out a nutrition chart. The information could be baked into an informative application.
“We have a really good product, and we don’t need to hide behind gimmicks,” says Brandon Rhoten, vice president of digital marketing for the company. “We would rather be helpful and give the consumers what they need.”
As the Wendy’s team was developing the app, they considered more practical consumer needs. “If you want 800 calories for lunch, we can give you options. And we can do the math the other way,” Rhoten says, so a diner can build a meal and have the app count the calories.
One meal choice with less than 500 calories is a Grilled Chicken Go Wrap, Garden Side Salad, and bottled water, totaling 470 calories. By personalizing the chicken wrap to eliminate cheese, 30 calories are removed, which lowers the meal to 440 calories. It typically takes no more than several seconds to do this on an app, making it easier than doing the math from a nutritional chart, Rhoten says. And a configured meal can be quickly saved for future reference.
Some restaurants are creating low-cal menus with entirely new items. One of them is El Pollo Loco, which created its 5 Under 500 Calories menu with five new items made mostly from ingredients that the Costa Mesa, California–based chain was already using.
“El Pollo Loco has always had a healthy halo because of the cooking we do and the items we have,” says Heather Gardea, executive chef. “The basic ingredients for the 5 Under 500 Calories menu were already at the restaurant, but never combined together.” Mango salsa is the only new ingredient created for the low-cal menu.
The new dishes don’t reduce portion sizes to cut calories, Gardea says, and the 500-calorie level was selected “because that’s a substantial meal for lunch or dinner. It’s not a component of a meal, like a taco or burrito, but a full meal.” In addition to a Mango Grilled Tostada, new menu items include the Mango Taco Plate, Avocado Salad, Avocado Burrito, and Black Bean Bowl. The menu items include neither fried ingredients nor two mainstays of Mexican cooking: pinto beans and rice.
“Pinto beans don’t have the same healthy feeling as black beans among consumers, and adding rice would make it feel heavier,” she says.
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.