Owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster to trim salt, calories in menu items

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As consumers increasingly ask for healthier fare, the
company that operates Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants said
last week that it will cut salt and calories across its menus by 10
percent over the next five years and 20 percent over the next decade.

Darden
Restaurants, an Orlando, Fla.-based company with 1,900 restaurants that
also include the LongHorn Steakhouse chain, vowed to reformulate
recipes, trim portion sizes and introduce healthier items in the coming
years.

“Americans are increasingly conscious of
making healthy choices for themselves and their families,” Darden CEO
Clarence Otis said Thursday.

The move comes as the
federal government and some states have stepped up pressure on the
nation’s restaurants to post calorie information, given rising rates of
heart disease and obesity. Restaurant operators have avoided overtly
“healthy” options as a whole, in part because they’ve feared alienating
customers, while others have clung to traditional formulations of
longtime favorites that have made them famous.

But
as more consumers are requesting healthier options for themselves and
their children, and a new set of federal dietary guidelines suggest
cutting sodium intake by about 30 percent, many top chains, including
McDonald’s, are working to effect small changes gradually. In many
cases, restaurants hope their customers won’t even notice.

“The
best way to boil a frog is to put it in cold water and slowly turn up
the heat,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a
Chicago-based restaurant industry consultancy. Consumers are more
likely to have a negative reaction to significant changes made quickly,
he said.

In Darden’s case, the company has started
with its kids’ menus, making vegetables the default side item instead
of fries and making 1 percent milk the default drink instead of soda.

The company could not provide examples of specific changes coming to its adult menus, saying they’re not yet under way.

Dennis
Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD
Partners, an Ohio-based consulting firm, said restaurant operators are
having to navigate an uncertain terrain.

“Restaurants
have known for a while that you can’t get too far ahead of the consumer
on this issue, and you can’t get too far behind on this issue,” he
said. “As we see more interest in ‘better-for-me’ menu options, we’re
seeing calorie counts on menus, items under 600 calories, items that
might be gluten-free and that have reduced sodium.”

Lombardi added that the restaurant industry is eyeing sodium as customers’ next big priority, after calories and trans fats.

In
an email, Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of
“Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health”
and “What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good
Eating,” described Darden’s announcement as a step in the right
direction and “an admission that restaurant chains contribute to
childhood obesity and need to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

Another
food expert pointed out that a plate of fettuccini Alfredo with 10
percent less sodium and fat still won’t constitute health food.

Marisa
Moore, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic
Association, noted that most restaurant portions are large enough to
supply more than half the daily recommended calories in one sitting.

“The biggest impact would be reducing portion sizes,” Moore said.

Darden
follows McDonald’s Corp., which announced in July that it would begin
serving every Happy Meal with a fruit or vegetable this fall. The Oak
Brook, Ill.-based chain is also reducing the sodium content of its menu
by 15 percent by 2015 and plans to make additional reductions to
saturated fat, calories and added sugars by 2020.

A
number of other chains are taking up the healthy-eating mantle in other
ways. Applebee’s, for instance, offers five entrees with fewer than 550
calories, and it works with Weight Watchers to provide “points” values
for those following the popular diet program.

Starbucks,
which removed trans fat and artificial flavors from its food in 2009,
launched a variety of treats for fewer than 200 calories earlier this
year, including cupcakes, lemon bars, and small cake balls covered in
icing and served on a stick.

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©2011 the Chicago Tribune

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