Much like the building industry did years ago with its LEED program, the United States Healthful Food Council is creating a nutrition certification program for the entire foodservice industry. The program is an effort to cut down on obesity and diet-related diseases.

The Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL) program will be based on an index system in which restaurants are rewarded points for best practices. For example, a restaurant would get points for not cooking in trans fat, for monitoring the number of calories in each dish, and for providing multiple portion sizes. The program will also give credit for sustainability practices, as well as for humane treatment of animals in the supply chain.

“What we are trying to do is much more of a market approach, where we are trying to make healthful food more affordable and more profitable,” says Lawrence Williams, director of the United States Healthful Food Council and creator of the REAL program.

The program will offer silver, gold, and platinum levels based on weighted criteria developed by a panel of experts. It will also build relationships with credentialed dietitians and nutritionists around the country to help with the program. It will not involve random inspections of sites, but will have
stipulations within participation agreements that allow for audits to occur.

Although Williams hopes the program becomes a universal symbol throughout the industry and with consumers, he realizes shifting to these best practices will be costly for restaurants, which could lead to higher prices for diners at the outset.

The Council has pitched the REAL program to restaurant operators as an alternative to Groupon or LivingSocial, arguing that it’s a similar marketing move that trades profit for new customers. “I think our customer base is much more loyal than those out there searching for a discount,” Williams says.

Williams, a social entrepreneur with a background in economics and business, has worked in both the private and public sectors and has become increasingly concerned with the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

“There is a lack of incentives for the foodservice industry to really provide healthful offerings,” he says. “The restaurant industry is highly competitive and they are often competing on price.”

To optimize profits, Williams says, quick serves typically work to be as efficient as possible while providing the tastes consumers want through the use of salt, sugar, and fat. As a result, nutrition has become a nonfactor in the profitability of many restaurants, contributing to the overall problem of obesity and diabetes, he says.

“It’s certainly a valid point that the restaurant industry needs to be more cognizant of its role in the United States’ challenges with obesity,” says Maeve Webster, director of Datassential, a market research firm that focuses on the foodservice industry.

Webster, however, believes the United States Healthful Food Council is putting an undue amount of blame on the restaurant industry when, in fact, about three-fourths of all meals in the U.S. are eaten at home. She says the restaurant industry has begun to recognize the problem and is making efforts to offer healthy choices.

“These foodservice operators and manufacturers are making plenty of effort, both overtly and covertly, to make menus healthier for patrons,” Webster says.“I don’t find any fault with the program itself, but one has to wonder … to what degree do consumers care? If they create a point system, who is going to pay attention to it? … Consumers are really not always looking to eat as healthy as possible.”

Still, the REAL program is based on incentives rather than regulations, which is the path New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken.

“When you have a hammer like the mayor does and you have a big problem, you look around for the tallest nail and you start pounding, and that was the soda industry,” Williams says. “I’m not defending or criticizing that approach. I’m just saying it’s indicative of the big problem.”

The council has received interest from more than 1,000 foodservice entities, including some “relatively large” quick-service and fast-casual operators, Williams says. It has also received some attention from First Lady Michelle Obama’s staff. Obama has been at the forefront of the national conversation regarding diet and obesity through her “Let’s Move!” initiative.

“I do think it’s an interesting program, and I think the program has some legs. I do think it is important for restaurants to show the public everything that they serve and be really transparent about their menu, and I think a program like this will allow that to happen,” says Randy Schechter, cofounder of Energy Kitchen, a 15-unit quick-serve restaurant with locations along the East Coast. Energy Kitchen offers burgers, wraps, and breakfast items that are low-calorie and nutritious.

“It is something that we would certainly entertain if it is marketed and operated correctly,” Schechter says. He notes, however, that some large quick-service chains may not be on board because the REAL program would force them to be transparent about some potentially unhealthy menu options.

Williams says the program plans to pilot itself in three cities and with a couple of larger quick serves. Within these pilot programs, the information the restaurant entity shares with the council will be verified.The council will also launch a website that allows restaurants to complete a nutritional audit and register for the program.

“It’s really going to be just collecting this information and making it available,” Williams says. “If someone is going to lie, they’re going to lie, but we don’t think there will be widespread fraud.”

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