Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

The Claim Game: It seems like every restaurant these days devotes a portion of its menu to "good for you" items. Here you'll see all sorts of appealingly healthful adjectives, as in "cholesterol free," "low fat" and "reduced sodium." You'll also notice descriptors like "diet plate," "high fiber" or "lighter fare."

In the past, most of these casual claims were backed by nothing more than the restaurant's honest intentions. Unscrupulous kitchens might have made health claims for their fettuccine Alfredo, kung pao pork or beef chimichanga, with little fear of repercussions.

Those days are over. New federal regulations say restaurant menus must now follow the same rules when they make health and nutrition claims as food manufacturers do on their cans, bottles and packages.

The Arizona Restaurant Association is telling its members to get with the program. "If your menu states the amount of fat, calories or any other nutrients, or it uses words like 'diet,' 'healthy' or 'low in fat,' it has made a Nutrient Content Claim. If your menu uses a heart symbol, the phrase 'heart healthy,' or claims to comply with the American Cancer Society recommendations, you have made a Health Claim."

In either case, restaurants have to be able to back up those claims. Customers are entitled to proof.

For example, if the restaurant says the soup is low-sodium, it must be prepared to document that the dish has fewer than the FDA-maximum of 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. If it claims the soup is low-fat, there must be no more than three grams of fat per serving.

So if you order off the healthful part of the menu, and have documented evidence that your meal meets federal health and nutrition guidelines, you can eat guilt-free, right?

Wrong. The federal regulations can be deceiving. Let's go back to the soup, which the restaurant correctly claims is low-fat. The feds define a serving of soup as one cup, or 245 grams. Your restaurant may serve the soup in a two-cup bowl. Technically, the soup is still low-fat--no more than three grams of fat per 245-gram serving. But you may be downing up to six grams of fat.

Similarly, low-sodium, low-calorie or low-cholesterol claims may be true when they're calculated according to federal portion guidelines. But restaurants know many diners equate value with quantity, so they serve double and even triple guideline-size portions. Heck, even beef sounds healthful, according to government guidelines, as long as you consider three ounces a serving. But who goes to Morton's and orders a three-ounce New York sirloin?

If you're a health-conscious or medically challenged diner, your antennae should go up, not down, whenever you see restaurant health and nutrition claims. That "light" entree you order may indeed have either one-third fewer calories or 50 percent less fat compared to a similar dish. (That's the federal definition.) But depending on the serving size, your brain may be the only part of your body that's being fooled.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel