CHICAGO — A majority of consumers would like to see regulations requiring restaurants to show complete nutritional information for all items served, according to Technomic's most recent Nutritrack study.
In a survey of 2,500 American adults, Technomic's researchers found that not only do respondents feel that restaurant menus are lacking in healthy choices, but 74% said they would support making it mandatory that restaurants provide a section on their menu or menu board with a nutritional breakdown of every item served.
What's more, 71% said they would support a regulation to require the calorie count for each item to be stated right on the menu alongside its price.
Those figures surprised even the researchers who have been tracking consumers' healthy eating concerns over the past several years.
“We were surprised at the high percentages and the extent to which respondents assign responsibility to restaurants when it comes to nutrition,” Chris Malone, lead researcher on this most recent of Technomic's Nutritrack studies, told SN.
“One thing that particularly surprised us was 40% said there should be a limit to the number of calories any menu item can contain. And 25% even said there should be a limit to the number of calories served to any individual. That was very surprising.”
This is the first time Technomic has asked respondents about potential regulations regarding the disclosure of nutritional information on menus or menu boards at restaurants and other food-service outlets.
While there are no federal regulations mandating such disclosure and sources knew of no state-level ones, researchers were spurred to ask such questions when some cities last year — New York among them — adopted regulations regarding trans fats.
“Before last year, making such things mandatory just wasn't on the radar. But since then, there have been local rulings on trans fats and non-smoking. It's interesting that more people want mandatory nutrition information than want smoke-free eating places. By comparison, 66% said all smoking areas [in restaurants] should be eliminated, and just 60% said child-oriented ads and promotions for unhealthy foods should be eliminated,” Malone said.
Mandating that calorie count be put right on the menu beside the price struck many people SN talked to as extreme.
“Eating out is a fun occasion,” said one New York suburban consumer. “I may watch the calories when I'm eating at home, but I really don't want to know how many calories and grams of fat are in that tenderloin with brandy sauce, or the double-fudge cake.”
Not surprisingly, chefs agree that it's just too much to expect white-tablecloth restaurants to break down calories and fat and cholesterol for every menu item.
“I would certainly hope this wouldn't become mandatory,” said Todd Gray, chef and co-owner of Equinox, an upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant.
“It would take away so much from what we chefs do. You know, there's something magical about eating out in a nice restaurant. Often, it's celebrating a special occasion. I don't think my customers want to know how many calories and fat grams are in their rib-eye.”
At least one consultant agreed that white-tablecloth restaurant guests probably would not want such a lot of information dished up so prominently.
“What consumers say they want vs. what they actually do is quite different,” said Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillan/Doolittle, a Chicago consulting firm.
“There is a growing portion of the population that is committed to eating better and healthier, but the majority of consumers still want to suspend belief when it comes to eating out.”
Another consultant, though he thinks a lot of detail need not be provided, emphasized consumers' increasing quest for nutritional information everywhere.
“They're looking at ingredients more than ever before. I think the Technomic study is right on target, and the results don't surprise me,” said Ira Blumenthal, president, Co-Opportunities, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that focuses on business development in the food industry.
Blumenthal added, however, that people already trust fine dining restaurants when it comes to safety and high quality, and they're aware what's offered there are often indulgences. But he said nutritional information, offered voluntarily, could serve quick-service restaurants, casual-dining restaurants, even convenience stores, well.
“It could be a discernible and sustainable point of difference, creating a marketing advantage” in those outlets, Blumenthal said.
In another part of the Nutritrack study, researchers asked consumers how important it is for restaurants to offer a variety of healthy items on their menus and then asked how satisfied they are with present restaurant menus in that respect. (See “Consumers Find Restaurants' Healthy Offerings Lacking,” SN, Aug. 6, 2007.)
In that part of the study, the researchers could compare statistics to those they gathered in 2004 and 2005, because they asked comparable questions then.
“We've seen a steady increase in consumers' interest in eating healthy,” research lead Malone pointed out.
But he was surprised that there was such a jump in interest from 2005 to 2007. For example, in 2004 and in 2005, 33% of consumers said it was important for restaurants and other food providers to offer healthy items and that they needed to provide nutritional information. In the recent study, that percentage had risen to 40%.
“The high water mark had been 2004, when people were reading and hearing a lot about the Atkins and similar diets,” Malone said.
The recent study also showed 23% of respondents said it's extremely important for restaurants to offer more healthy items, but only 14% said they were extremely satisfied with restaurants' healthy offerings, leaving quite a gap. For school cafeterias, it was even bigger. The highest percentage — 35% of respondents — said it's important for school cafeterias to offer healthy offerings, but only 10% said they were extremely satisfied. Perhaps because their expectations were not high, just 25% said it's extremely important for supermarket delis to have healthy items, but only 16% were extremely satisfied that they did.