Many Newarkers eat out in the City’s 128 plus food service establishments. Some of these restaurants are participating in this year’s Eat & Shop Local Week. While you can see how a restaurant has met the Department of Child & Family Well-Being’s division of Environmental Health inspections here, nutritional information about what is served at restaurants is not as easily available. Research has shown that on average, consumers underestimate the number of calories in restaurant items by over 600 calories, and many studies have found a correlation between fast food restaurants and higher consumption of calories and fat.
With nutrition information we can manage our weight and reduce the risk of or manage heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure to live long, healthy lives and avoid potential health-care costs. Though there are conflicting results about the impact of menu labeling on consumer behavior, the demand for menu labeling demonstrates that people want to know what is in their food. Nationally, polls report that between 62 and 84 percent of people support menu labeling.
The trend of providing nutritional information on menus started on the west coast and is being adopted by more states and cities. In 2007 New York City revised its Health Code with this amendment that requires caloric information to be provided at the time of purchase (on menus or menu boards) in all food service establishments with standardized menu items. Although New Jersey has not adopted its own legislation, one Newark restaurant has taken the initiative to help customers make informed decisions about their food consumption.
In March 2011 native Newarker Gabriel (Gabe) DaSilva and his friend, VJ Derbarghamain, opened “Better Bites,” a fast-casual restaurant serving wraps, salads, smoothies, and breakfast foods in the convenient downtown location of Broad Street and Raymond Boulevard. Not long after opening, Gabe noticed that while customers were happy to get their whole-wheat waffles, vegetarian wraps and berry body builder shakes, they also wanted to know the nutritional content of these menu items. Inspired by customer demand and the NYC legislation, Better Bites added nutritional information, specifically the number of calories, as well as the amount of fat, protein and carbs, for every menu item. This was done by cross-referencing three food databases and working with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center to find nutritionists who specialize in macronutrient calculation.
Better Bites was happy to reflect the consumer demand for full disclosure because the ingredients they use are of the highest quality. Since Better Bites updated its menus, there has been a visible impact on consumer purchasing behavior. Gabe has noticed consumers reading and comparing nutritional information and making choices based on it. One menu item that often gets double takes from customers is the turkey burger, because it contains more calories than the beef burger. People are surprised to learn that turkey is naturally high in fat, which includes monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats, and saturated fats. If you want to learn more about dietary fats, see what the CDC has to say.
Gabe is supportive of the possibility of regulation passing, though he also is concerned that restaurants may paint their menus as more healthful than they actually are. The accuracy of posted nutritional content can only be enforced with standardized menu items (items that are standardized regarding portion size, formulation, and ingredients). In 2010, Congress passed a national mandate that will require restaurant chains with twenty or more outlets to post nutritional content. This bill has been delayed as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struggles to set rules for compliance, which will involve inspecting ingredient calculations made by restaurants. In the meantime, states and cities can enact their own menu legislation, like NYC and California have done, though others have vetoed menu labeling laws in favor of waiting for the federal legislation so as not to burden restaurants with too many rules.
Better Bites’ philosophy is that everyone should be able to have information to make educated decisions when choosing their food. Better Bites may be paving the way for improved menu labeling in New Jersey, especially if legislation requiring it is passed. Posting nutritional content is only the first step; ultimately, Gabe would like to go so far as to label the source of the ingredients. You can visit Better Bites at 1186 Raymond Boulevard, near Broad Street or online at www.betterbites.com.
Changing the food environment so that consumers are able to make informed decisions about what they eat is one way to address the increasing burden of obesity and other nutrition-related chronic diseases in Newark. Already we can read nutrition labels before buying food at the grocery store; menu-labeling restaurants is a natural step toward empowering Newarkers to make informed food choices.