Chain restaurants best avoided by ‘healthy’ eaters

Posted by
October 8, 2013

While we don’t typically cover restaurant fare at Food Identity Theft, a recently published study on so-called “healthy” food options at restaurant chains discloses the same disconnect between nutrition “facts” and the actual ingredients that consumers face in the supermarket.

The study, published last week in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, revealed that despite a lot of industry talk about new and improved menu items –  and no, I’m not referring to the Burger King “Satisfries” which don’t count on any level of “improved” fast food – choices at big U.S. chains haven’t changed all that much.

Among the conclusions of the study are that despite what consumers are hearing from the restaurant industry, it’s pretty much a “misleading perception” that restaurant choices are becoming “healthier.”

But what the study focused on, sodium and calories (which it said have only dropped a smidgen, and in some cases increased) shouldn’t really be what a “healthy” meal is judged by. Sure, calories and sodium count, but those are by no means the markers that make food “healthy.” In fact, some of the worst processed foods you’ll find in the supermarket boast about being “low sodium” or “low calorie.”

Why doesn’t anyone talk about the ingredients?

The National Restaurant Association director of nutrition commented for the Los Angeles Times report on the study by maintaining that restaurant chains are making progress and have committed to lowering calories and sodium, but that such changes take time. All this focus on calorie counts, however, sure steers the conversation away from the actual ingredients in most restaurant meals  — which is a good deal for the industry, because what ‘chain chow’ typically consists of is really, really bad.

A good example is Panera Bread, voted number one by Health magazine as America’s top ten “healthiest” fast- food restaurant. Health said that the restaurant “wowed” its judges with choices that “make it easy for everyone to choose healthy.”

But after jumping through numerous hoops on the Panera website, I finally discovered a place to find out what, exactly, its food is made from. Here are two examples:

  • “All Natural Bistro Onion” with croutons: This concoction contains over 40 ingredients (I got tired of counting them all) including several sources of free glutamic acid (hidden MSG), artificial flavor, dough conditioners, the great unknown of “natural flavorings,” margarine, and some “animal enzymes” for the vegetarian to enjoy.
  • Baked Potato Soup: This item contained more sources of hidden MSG than I have ever seen in any one processed food, and that didn’t even include the several additions of “natural flavorings,” which typically are another source of unlabeled free glutamic acid. Add to that some nitrates from the bacon and you’ve got one amazing bowl of awful-additive soup.

On top of its less than stellar soups, the items the company describes as ” whole grain” seem to be, in large part, anything but. The first ingredient in its “whole grain” bread, for instance, is enriched wheat flour, which is not  a whole grain. That is followed by a “grain blend” made up of some whole grains and some whole wheat flour. The trouble with that recipe is that it’s an unknown exactly how much actual whole grain is in the product. I’m sure Panera knows, but they’re not sayin’ on the web site.

Since it’s reported that Americans spend roughly half of their food budget eating out, perhaps it’s time for more attention to be given menu ingredients – information that is often not available at a restaurant, but only at the company website (necessitating ‘on location’ customers to be armed with a smart phone in order to find out). Even when the federal menu labeling law finally kicks in (if it ever does), it, too, will be focused on calories, requiring chains with 20 or more locations to list calorie counts for specific dishes on their menus and menu boards.

The menu labeling rules came out of the 2010 health care law, and have been actively debated by industry ever  since — so much so, in fact, that Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the whole thing “has gotten extremely thorny.”

The rule is also said to require chain restaurants to offer “additional” nutritional information on request, but it’s not clear exactly what that would consist of.

So our advice to you is if you’re a picky eater at home, stick to your principles and don’t just focus on the calorie count when eating out. And steer way clear of that Panera baked potato soup.