Here’s what you need to know to stay on top of the FDA’s soon-to-come menu labeling rules

The requirements are pretty extensive, but disclosing nutritional information has its advantages, too.



Consistently measured topping amounts help ensure the accuracy of nutritional information provided to customers.

 

After years of back-and-forth with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), foodservice outlets with more than 20 locations will be required to provide nutritional info on menus starting in May 2017. But as simple as that sounds, the process has proven a nightmarish quagmire for pizzerias, which offer near-unlimited customization and whose patrons often order off-premise. Here’s an update on what pizzeria operators need to know as the final deadline looms.

 

Learning the Language

Paige Einstein, manager of data quality for Washington, D.C.-based Nutritionix.com, notes that the FDA issued final guidance on menu labeling on April 29, 2016. Enforcement will begin on May 5, 2017. “Pizza chains will have to provide calorie information on menus (including takeout menus) and menu boards and must have complete nutrition information available in-store,” Einstein explains. “This information can be posted on a website, but if that’s the only source, the restaurant must provide a way for customers to access it in-store, without relying on a customer’s own technology.”

The requirements are pretty extensive. Pizzerias must list calories on menus and menu boards next to the item name or price, along with two nutritional statements (see sidebar). For self-service buffets, signage must display the item name, calories and serving or unit. Foods that contain multiple servings, like pizza, may have calories listed per the whole menu item (i.e., an entire pie) or per discrete serving unit (per slice). If listing per slice, the total number of slices must also be listed, such as “pizza, 200 calories per slice, 8 slices.” For toppings listed on the menu/menu board, calories must be listed for each topping and for all sizes. (See sidebar at left for more details on these requirements.)

“Sometimes the amount of a topping used on pizza may decrease as the customer adds more toppings, but calories must be listed for each topping assuming it is going on a single-topping pizza,” Einstein says. “A declaration must also specify: ‘Pepperoni: 200 added calories for a one-topping pizza.’”

In addition, says Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo in Fort Collins, Colorado, the regulations have clear instructions on posting info, from font size of the calories listed to where the information must show up. “With pages and pages of regulations, the simple answer is to follow the regulations and have it checked by an expert before spending thousands on printing your menus and having to reprint again,” Craig advises.

 

Asking for Help

There are several ways to determine nutritional info for your food, Einstein notes. The safest route may be to use calculations based on nutrient databases from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or to hire a laboratory to perform a nutritional analysis on your food. “Because the calorie and nutrient declarations for menu items must be accurate and consistent, it may be advantageous to hire an outside expert to put together all of the necessary nutrition information,” Einstein says.

MenuTrinfo uses a nutritional database and offers consulting packages for restaurateurs. The company also conducts free webinars to educate the industry. “Lately, a ton of new software solutions are popping up to let people do it themselves,” Craig says. “Using an app or software may save money, but it’s not as easy as you think, and many apps have questionable accuracy. Brands can also purchase nutritional software and have someone in-house trained to use it, but that can be expensive.” Using a laboratory, meanwhile, may require a longer lead time, since the samples have to be taken and shipped out for testing.

Major chains like Pizza Hut and Marco’s have enlisted help from Nutritionix, which makes nutritional information accessible through interactive nutrition calculators. “This allows a customer to visit the restaurant’s website, build a pizza to their own specifications, and see the detailed nutrition information,” Einstein says. “While these tools are not required, they make nutrition more fun and easier to understand for the customer—and take the burden off the restaurant to calculate the nutrition facts for the overwhelming number of topping combinations.” (To see an example of a nutrition calculator used by the Newk’s Eatery chain, go to www.nutritionix.com/newks-eatery/portal.)

Domino’s, when compiling the nutritional info it has provided for years, accesses suppliers for packaged food calorie counts, then adds the numbers together for full menu items. “The FDA mentions ‘standard builds,’ like a cheese or pepperoni pizza or a specialty pizza like a Margherita,” says Tim McIntyre, Ann Arbor, Michigan-based EVP of communications for Domino’s and chair of the American Pizza Community (APC). “But with the complexity of customization, technology can help.” 

“[Nutritional calculators] make nutrition more fun and easier to understand for the customer—and take the burden off the restaurant to calculate the facts for all of the many topping combinations.”
—Paige Einstein, Nutritionix

 

Working the System

Though some operators are less than thrilled about the burden of nutritional labeling, it can offer business benefits. For example, you can highlight lower-calorie or healthier menu items to appeal to health-conscious consumers. “Consider marking these items with a special symbol or putting these items into their own section on the menu to draw more attention to them,” Einstein recommends. “As customers become accustomed to seeing this information, they may begin to expect it in all restaurants.” Hence, smaller operations may consider providing this information even though it’s not required by law.

Craig points out that additional regulations monitor the language used around “healthy” items, so you should familiarize yourself with those requirements, too. Meanwhile, having the right attitude will help. “Menu labeling is a new cost, but getting the menu done and staying current with a nutritional partner, help desk or solution is not a massive future expense,” Craig notes. “The single- or few-location restaurants we work with do this for several reasons: because they plan to grow to 20 locations, they need the numbers for franchise documents, or they have so many diners asking for the information.”

Nutritional info can also help improve your in-store systems, such as training employees to measure ingredients, leading to better consistency, less food waste, lower food costs and formalized recipes. Not to mention a lot of diners simply want to know more about what they’re eating. “Many of our clients have chosen to add nutrition information to their websites and menu boards ahead of FDA requirements to increase the transparency of their product and give customers full control of what they eat,” Einstein says. They’ve also benefited from fewer requests for nutrition and allergen information, saving time and money in man-hours while appealing to customers with dietary restrictions.

Ultimately, many brands have embraced offering nutrition facts even as the details remain daunting. “Nutritional info has been beneficial for us and our brand because we believe in transparency,” McIntyre says. “It’s never a bad thing to be transparent, unless there’s something to hide.” 

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.

 

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