Monday, August 22, 2011

Calorie counts in unsuspected places: IKEA

It's true--you can now shop for dresser drawers AND eat some Swedish meatballs for 686 calories.

Is it just me, or are calorie counts turning up in the most surprising places?  Ball games, food trucks, and now home decorating stores?  It's official: nutrition information is ubiquitous.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

College students: "Give us healthier food."

A recent poll by Technomic yielded surprising results regarding college-aged students and their dining preferences.  When asked about their school's dining program, only 28% of students claimed to be satisfied with the healthy offerings at their school.

Some trends Technomic includes in the new report include:
   Customization is an increasingly critical issue for college diners: nearly half of students polled (47%) said it is important that they can omit or substitute ingredients in their food.
   21% of students limit their meat consumption by sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet, eating only certain types of meat, or eating meat only occasionally.
   "Operators on and off campus could attract more students and increase the frequency of visits by refining their menus based on students’ desires.”

Talk about the student becoming the teacher: campus kitchens and restaurant operators alike can take a lesson from these results.  

What can your restaurant do to easily cater to this demographic?
   Encourage the concept of customization.  Consider a “build your own,” or a “you pick the combo,” option.
   Offer meat-free or meat substitutes as alternatives for vegetarians.
   Make nutrition information available for all or a select group of menu items, marking certain selections as lighter options.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Skinny Cocktails Taking Over Restaurant Menus

There once was a time when people on diets reduced their calorie intake by eliminating eating out and excluding alcohol.  Nowadays, one can dine out at many fine establishments and not only find low calorie menu options, but even low calorie cocktails, all without breaking the caloric break. 

Alcohol is still full of empty calories, that we can’t change, but with modern food science we can do something about the empty calories that super sugary mixers provide.  Just like with diet soda, beverage companies like Finest Call are starting to make artificially flavored mixers for calorie counting diners and the restaurants looking to attract them.   And, summer offers a variety of naturally sweetened and naturally low calorie fruits that are a great substitute for conventional mixers. 

Here are some examples of low calorie cocktails available in restaurants now:

Kona Grill provides an entire “Skinny” bar menu complete with appetizers and cocktails all under 200 calories.

Morton’s Steakhouse has introduced their line of Spa-Tinis; five beautifully
crafted cocktails served in stemmed glasses, and all under 200 calories.

McCormick & Schmick’s uses fresh lime juice with agave syrup to sweeten their
skinny margaritas instead of using the traditional sweet and sour mix.  Agave
syrup is sweeter than regular sugars that less can be used and calories can be

Now, who said dieting can’t be fun?



Friday, August 5, 2011

Calorie labeling shocker: Effective only when noticed.

The LA Times ran an article last week with a catching headline:  Calorie labeling may make a difference  -- if customers notice.  It opened:
Calorie labeling in fast food restaurants is part of the landscape, but is it making a difference in what customers buy? A study finds that it can, if people pay attention to the information.
The headline may as well have said, "Calorie labeling can make a difference - if customers can read," or " - if customers can count."   

Indeed, customer interest and the ability to interpret and understand the calorie information is crucial to menu labeling success.  Similarly, labeling arsenic as deadly will not be effective if the handler does not read the label, or have enough education to know better in the first place.

This evidence brings us to the following conclusions when assessing the effectiveness of menu labeling:

  • Calorie/nutrition information should be as conspicuously posted as possible.
  • Steps must be taken to give context to the information in order to facilitate the most informed decisions.
    • This is the reason why the national menu labeling law specifies that a sentence about the recommended daily caloric intake must be included on menus and menu boards.
In other words, customers must be able to read and reasonably interpret these figures before anyone can assume that they are choosing to ignore them.

Restauranteurs: where are you providing nutrition information for your customers?  Is it accessible and clear?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cheesecake Factory jumps on the 'skinny' ship

Of the many restaurants jumping aboard the segmented-menu trend featuring lighter or healthier options, Cheesecake Factory is perhaps the most surprising, and also perhaps the most satisfying.

Cheesecake Factory has long been criticized for being slow to release their nutrition information to the public.  Among diners and nutrition buffs, their nutrition analysis has acted as the holy grail of restaurant nutrition--if you get ahold of it, you would be among the few and far between.  

Nowadays, not only does the chain make all nutrition available at the point of purchase, they are also releasing a "SkinnyLicious" menu , featuring 15 entrees under 590 calories and 12 appetizers under 490.  As remarked by USA Today, "This move by Cheesecake Factory is the cosmic equivalent of Chuck E. Cheese adding a quiet zone."

That might be so, but the high-grossing restaurant chain is confident in its decision.  "It's something America wants," says CEO David Overton. "When you're in this business, you have to please as many people as you can."

And the people have spoken: they want healthier options on the menu, even if only to be able to fit in some cheesecake after dinner.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dining by Numbers: the consumer perspective

Here at FoodCALC we largely do business with restaurants.  While eventually what we do trickles down to the consumer level, we do not sell or promote to them directly (though we do get a lot of interest from them!).  A year ago, I couldn’t help but think that we must have something to offer this demographic while still being true to what we do and who we are as a company.  I started something that, in my opinion, has proved that B2B companies can still successfully engage with the consumer: the Dining by Numbers blog.

I author Dining by Numbers as the health conscious diner that I am, addressing and interacting with other health conscious diners.  Originally titled The Dining Detective, I quickly changed the name because it is not my intention to uncover anything hidden; rather, to highlight my dining experiences from the perspective of a calorie counter.  I sometimes blog about my tips for healthier dining, and often share my victories with finding restaurant food that fits within my nutritional budget.

The response has been wonderful.  It’s amazing to interact with so many followers that use and benefit from the information that FoodCALC provides to restaurants. It has helped us as a company to better understand our customer’s customer, and how to work with them to help meet their end goal of rave reviews and customer loyalty.

As a foodservice servicer (say that five times fast!), historically I have struggled to find my company’s place among consumers.  It is my job to effectively communicate the FoodCALC brand to the world, which is sometimes a challenge when that world is broken up into two decidedly different audiences: the foodservice industry and the foodservice industry consumer.

For FoodCALC, Dining by Numbers bridges this gap and gives us access to a demographic that we would otherwise not have the opportunity to communicate with.  In the restaurant world, the consumer is the common denominator that keeps us all in business.  This creative, engaging platform provides an open environment for an exchange of ideas that will, hopefully, benefit the entire restaurant and foodservice community.

I hope you will come visit my blog at Dining by Numbers to learn more about what the health conscious consumer wants!

Lara Baldwin is FoodCALC’s Communications Manager, as well as an established contributor to the online health and nutrition community.