Which Nutrition Analysis Method Should Your Restaurant Choose?

Which Nutrition Analysis Method Should Your Restaurant Choose? September 12, 2016
By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, President, Healthy Dining and Sara Lucero

As restaurants across the country prepare to meet the May 5, 2017 menu labeling compliance deadline, completing menu nutrition analysis is becoming a top priority.  While some restaurants have long offered nutrition information to guests, for other restaurants, this is a new part of doing business and one that was never covered in culinary school, management training or on the job experiences.

The first step for restaurants still in need of a full menu nutrition analysis is to determine the best way to complete the process.  While choosing the right nutrition analysis method for your restaurant may seem daunting, with the right information and groundwork, it can be a step toward building a stronger business now and well into the future.  The right method for your restaurant should streamline the process of compliance and help your team strengthen processes without compromising the accuracy of information you provide to guests.

What is the Reasonable Basis Standard?
One of the many questions that has emerged from the menu labeling regulations is, “How accurate does my nutrition information have to be?”  According to the FDA’s final guidance document and the final rules for menu labeling, restaurants must have a “reasonable basis” for nutrient declarations. In other words, restaurants must meet specific requirements to determine the calorie information listed on menus and menu boards and values for the required additional written nutrition information.

In addition, the FDA’s menu labeling rules state that, “You must ensure that nutrient declarations for standard menu items are accurate and consistent with the specific basis used to determine nutrient values. You must take reasonable steps to ensure that the method of preparation (e.g., types and amounts of ingredients, cooking temperatures) and amount of a standard menu item offered for sale adhere to the factors on which you determined your nutrient values.” Failure to comply with the rule will render the food misbranded, and operators could be subject to civil penalties or other enforcement actions.

Guests and inspectors will both expect accurate and complete information readily available by the May 5, 2017 compliance deadline, making it essential to choose and move forward with the right method of nutrition analysis now.

Where to Start
When choosing a menu nutrition analysis method that meets both FDA’s reasonable basis standard and your business needs, there are several factors to consider:

  • Cost – Both the up front cost of the method but also the ongoing and long-term costs related to maintaining the accuracy of your nutrition information.
  • Size of your menu – Take a close look at the number of recipes, sub-recipes and variations on your menu.  What kinds of menu choices does your restaurant offer?  Simple or intricate, fresh or fried?  Do you have a limited or extensive beverage menu?  All of these can impact how you choose to have your menu analyzed.
  • Internal processes and procedures – Recipe development process, team training procedures, creation and distribution of marketing materials, and similar processes can help guide you on the best method of nutrition analysis for your restaurant.
  • Staff – The method you choose for menu nutrition analysis will also depend upon the size and expertise of your team.  Is your team large or small? Is there someone in house that has the culinary nutrition background, training and expertise to take on the responsibility, or is an outside vendor the best option for accuracy and cost? 

Nutrition Analysis Methods
There are several options when it comes to nutrition analysis for restaurant menus.  The best method will help you effectively complete the process and deliver required nutrition information by the final menu labeling deadline of May 5, 2017.  The FDA has outlined several acceptable methods that meet the reasonable basis standard, including nutrient databases, cookbooks, laboratory analysis, nutrition facts labels on packaged foods, and FDA nutrient values for fruits, vegetables and fish.  Here are some of the most common methods that fall into the categories:

Cookbooks: While this can be a lower cost option, it may require more time on your team’s part to find and compile accurate information.  It also means that the recipes your restaurant serves will have to be consistent with the recipes presented in the cookbook – which makes it generally unsuitable for restaurants.  Overall, this method:
  • Is a low-cost solution.
  • Can be inaccurate, depending on the source and restaurant staff’s nutrition knowledge.
Costing Software: Many restaurants take advantage of the nutrition functionality within the costing software already in place. In general, this method:
  • Requires no additional cost for software but may require additional cost in staffing to manage.
  • Allows restaurant more control over the process with no outside nutrition partner but may require some reliance on the software vendor. This includes making changes to nutrition information when recipes or product vendors change.
  • Requires additional training if the nutrition feature of the software is not already in use by restaurant staff.
  • Is more likely to be inaccurate or have missing values, as nutrition isn’t the primary focus of these programs.
  • Requires employees using the software to be trained in culinary nutrition.
Computerized Analysis (Nutrition Vendor): This method can be an effective solution for long-term management of accurate nutrition information.  In general, this method:
  • Is accurate when performed by a nutrition professional familiar with culinary science.
  • Transfers some responsibility to the outside nutrition partner, minimizing time spent on nutrition analysis by restaurant staff and making urgent changes more difficult.
  • Allows for easy updates to single or multiple recipes when ingredients, measurements or vendors change.
  • Can be higher cost, depending upon the vendor’s credentials, services included and the availability of ongoing nutrition information management.
Laboratory Analysis: This method is often considered the most accurate form of nutrition analysis, especially for certain types of foods.  In general, this method:
  • Is generally the highest cost method.
  • Requires that the restaurant keep accurate records about exactly which components of the menu item were included in the analysis (i.e., the side of rice, the sauce, or only the entrĂ©e itself).
  • Provides highly accurate nutrition information, especially for certain food items that are only accurately analyzed through laboratory analysis (i.e., fried foods).
  • Makes simple ingredient and recipe changes difficult.  Each time a recipe is changed, the food item must be re-analyzed for updated nutrition.
  • Transfers some control to outside vendor, minimizing time spent on nutrition analysis by restaurant staff and making urgent changes more difficult.
When working with an outside nutrition partner, whether for computerized analysis or laboratory analysis, be sure to ask plenty of questions.  Calculating the nutrient values for restaurant recipes can be a complex process requiring an accurate and detailed recipe and nutrition expertise.  The right company will take the nutrition off your plate, have a system for managing it now and into the future, and most importantly, will stand by their work.

Whichever method you choose, the best menu nutrition analysis option must work for your restaurant, ensuring menu labeling compliance, minimal disruption to your business, and accuracy of nutrition information for both reduced liability and happy, loyal guests.