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How Accurate is Your Menu Labeling?

Transparency on restaurant menus is a hot topic these days as a result of the national legislative push for standardized nutritional labeling. Even though this is still in the process of development, early reports have reveled that menu labeling can at times fail to accurately represent the caloric information for food offerings. According to a study published in the July issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association that analyzed the calorie content from 40 quick service and sit-down restaurants in three states, nearly 10 percent of the 269 items tested were above that of their suggested value by at least 10 calories; another 19 percent were higher by 100.
While these numbers may not be that far off the mark, the need to implement a strategy to ensure accuracy is crucial to your restaurant’s reputation, especially when considering how those nutritional labels affect customer purchases and brand opinions.
To minimize cost and maintain your menu’s standard of excellence, here are ten tips to consider before starting your recipe analysis:
1. Do your homework on analysis methods.
Decide whether you want to go with a laboratory analysis or a database system as an analysis solution. To prepare for a lab analysis you’ll have to figure out how to pack and send in your samples as requested by the lab of choice. Because laboratory analysis is costly, most companies choose to go with database analysis.
Database analysis, or analysis via calculation, involves taking data from ingredients that have been previously chemically tested and scaling those ingredients to match the amounts used in the final food product or recipe. Software companies, such as FoodCalc, have taken advantage of the ability to calculate nutrition information rather than extract it sample by sample. These tech-savvy tools use databases full of nutrition information of individual foods to instantly calculate a recipe’s nutritional profile.
2 Stay current on menu labeling laws.
These laws exist to protect restaurant operators as much as they exist to protect consumers. Knowing the ins and outs of what is expected will help you to best serve your customers and ultimately benefit your business.
For example, most people (restaurateurs and consumers alike) don’t realize that nutrition information provided, whether calories posted on menus, menu boards, or food tags, allows a 20% discretionary margin to the composite sample of the items served.
3. Standardized recipes
If you do not already use standardized recipes, this is the perfect opportunity to write them. Establishing and following standardized recipes will not only improve the accuracy of your nutrition results, but will also help to reduce waste and improve consistency.
4. Get up close and personal with your scale.
Many restaurants write their recipe specs by volume measurements (i.e. 1 cup, #20 scoop, fluid ounces, etc). Nutrition analysis by calculation is most accurate when ingredients are entered by weight. Having corresponding weights for your volume measurements will help to speed up the process, as well as increase accuracy.
5. Get to know your ingredients.
Look closely at the products in your recipes to identify which exact ingredient from the database to select. Compile a thorough ingredient list. Be sure to list specific cuts of beef, not just “beef,” and specific types of oil (soybean, corn, safflower, etc.), rather than simply “oil.” Note what percentage of milk you use (1%, whole, etc), and whether your jalapenos are fresh or canned. Ingredient quantities, and portion sizes are crucial when finalizing recipe specs. Using the correct ingredients from the database in the correct amounts will help assure the accuracy of your results. 
6. Gather all the facts.
If you have specialty ingredients that are not likely to be found in the database (i.e. ciabatta rolls from Alyson’s bakery), and an appropriate match does not exist in the database, you will want to add this exact ingredient. A good database program should have the capability to let you enter new ingredients. You’ll need to get the nutrition facts from the product to do this. Start to gather the nutrition labels from your packaging or request them from your vendors early in the process. Having these together and on hand will save you from scrambling at the last minute.
7. Train your staff.
There is little point in putting the aforementioned practices in place if your kitchen staff is not trained to follow procedure and best practices. Nutrition analysis results can’t be accurate if you are serving something different than what has been entered in the recipe calculation.
Make sure that proper processes, procedures, and tools are in place and enforced to help ensure that items are being served in portions as close to the original recipe specs as possible. The more consistently a portion is served, the more accurate the nutrition facts will be. This can also save on waste and food costs. 
8. No exclusions.
In the world of nutrition, every little bit counts. Make sure that the ingredients that you list in the recipe reflect everything that the diner is served. Some hidden ingredients that are often overlooked or forgotten include: butter or spread on buns/rolls, oil absorbed during frying, marinade absorbed during marinating, garnishes (if edible), side items (i.e. dinner rolls served with salads). Your nutrition analysis solution should provide you with tips on how to do this. 
9. Disclaim.
It is perfectly acceptable to let your customers know that your nutrition facts may vary. They have to understand that not all dishes are created equal and are made by human hands. Generally disclaimers for nutrition analysis in restaurants go something like this: “Variations in nutritional values may occur due to deviations in preparation, availability of ingredients, seasonal changes, and custom ordering. The nutritional values provided in this guide should be considered approximations.”
10. Ask the experts.
Whatever your method of analysis, make sure you choose a reputable, endorsed service provider. Check with your local state or national restaurant association for a credible recommendation and possibly receive a discount.
Once your analysis is complete, you will need to establish where and how to display the information to your customers. When complying with menu labeling regulations, there are many rules about what font you need to use, where the information will be visible, etc. Give yourself time to work with your menu designer and printer.
Finding an affordable, credible, and user-friendly analysis solution is advantageous, if not compulsory, in the current industry climate. Though nutrition analysis for restaurant menu items has begun as a trend, it is poised to quickly become the standard for menus all around the country.

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