Onsite operators go “high-tech” to answer the call for nutrition analysis.
| JUST A TOUCH WILL DO YA: Nutritionist Patrice Barber takes time to guide a USC student through the University's nutritional kiosk system. At right, information tables let students meet informally with the RD to ask nutrition questions or view nutritional literature. |
"What's for lunch?” It's the age-old question heard daily in cafès across the country. These days that question is just as likely to be followed by a barrage of others like: How many calories does it have? How many calories are from fat? Does it contain trans fats? How many carbs are in it?
More than ever, consumers want to know what's in their food. Their reasons range from dietary restrictions and health concerns to a desire to keep up with the latest diet fads.
Whatever the thinking, directors and dietitians are under the gun to provide nutritional profiles on demand for nearly every food item they offer. Many meet the challenge head-on with nutrition labels, posters, and one-on-ones with a staff RD.
Some have gone even further, providing a “do-it-yourself” nutritional analysis environment via interactive Websites and touchscreen kiosks. In a typical scenario, customers log on to a specified site and are immediately taken to a menu of that day's offerings. From there, they can select individual food items or an entire meal and, with just a click of the mouse or touch of a finger, receive a rundown of calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, and vitamins and minerals. As customers customize their selections, the nutritional profile of their meal changes, too.
While some operators debate the usefulness of such sophisticated setups, there's one thing they almost all agree on: the demand for nutritional information is here to stay. Here are some of the many ways they are seeking to meet that demand.
Bytes and Bites
Dining Services at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, recently launched an interactive nutrition analysis website based on NetNutrition software from the CBORD Group, Ithaca, NY. “The entire database of food items is built from our inventory database, so it's created from the food-item level up,” explains Debra Lee-Cadwell, director of dining services. “That means we can analyze anything that we have a standardized recipe for, in any portion size.”
Besides providing a nutritional breakdown of the meal, the site lets students set parameters by which they can compare their intake to that of others in their demographics or to USRDA guidelines.
“The students love it,” says Lee-Cadwell. “Many of them say they use the site to plan meals before they eat so that they can make good nutrition choices and avoid tempting sweets like caramel rolls and cheesecake. From a dietitian's perspective, I believe the site is a valuable educational tool—anytime you can put the education close to the actual experience, people will learn from it.”
The site has also helped boost the perceived value of university meal plans, says Lee-Cadwell, because students can see what ingredients are used in the recipes and that many of those recipes are made from scratch.
“It decreases the perception of ‘institutional' food,” she says. “Our goal has been to be proactive rather than reactive. There's no reason a country as developed as the United States should list cardiac disease as one of its top three killers, especially when that disease is so clearly linked to diet. There needs to be more of a focus on being proactive and the college years are the perfect time to do it.”
Nutritionist Patrice Barber, University of Southern California, agrees. “College age is the time in your life when you begin setting your adult eating habits, so having a system in place that helps raise nutritional awareness has a huge impact on students.”
Like Concordia College, USC Hospitality Services uses interactive nutritional analysis software but in kiosk form. “The kiosk has been very positive because it lets users add up an entire meal rather than just looking at individual foods,” says Barber. “It also has a lot of ‘wow' value in that students have fun interacting with the technology.”
Noncommercial operators across the board seem to be interested in how to communicate nutrition data to their customers in an informative and interesting way, says CBORD Vice President Tim Tighe. He cites his Net-Nutrition software in use at USC.
“Because it's Web-based, the software can be deployed in different ways,” he says. “It provides the toolset to communicate nutrition data to customers, and can be tailored to any look and feel the operator wants to create.” Beyond interactive kiosks, USC encourages good eating habits in other ways. For example, the Hospitality Services team designed the “Personal Pyramid Program” for students in its Residential Dining Program.
The goal of the Personal Pyramid is to help students assess individual activity levels and then calculate their calorie needs, while still keeping a healthful balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. To help them along, foods in the EVK (dubbed Everybody's Kitchen) residential dining hall carry labels that show how they fit into the pyramid in terms of serving quotas. For example, one 10-oz. serving of Asian Shrimp & Pasta breaks down to 1 protein, 1 grain and 1 vegetable. Students can compare that information to what's recommended by their personal pyramid (and to what they've already eaten that day) before making their selections.
“Our goal,” says Barber, “is to present nutrition information to our customers in whatever form they are most receptive to—print, personal interaction or technology.”
Though colleges are a natural fit for such technology, nutrition analysis has its place in k-12, B&I and healthcare settings, too (See FM's July issue for a feature story on k-12 nutrition innovators). One example is Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, where hospital staffers log on to an in-house intranet system to see the day's menu options and nutritional breakdowns.
“We also post a hard copy of ingredients in our retail areas, as well as a nutrient analysis detailing the macronutrients and glycemic index of some common foods,” explains Mary Keysor, Director of Nutrition Services.
“Because we are in a hospital setting, we try to provide a variety of foods and encourage healthy, fresh choices,” says Keysor. “In my facility, I want to educate customers in how to make the best decisions for themselves but I want to put the responsibility of knowing what those decisions are on them, not the foodservice industry.”
Despite all of the nutrition-information enhancements in foodservice, some wonder if customers take it all to heart.
“Unfortunately, it seems many people care very little about nutrition,” says Ellyn Luros, president of Computrition Inc., Chatsworth, Calif. The company provides sophisticated food-management software with a nutritient analysis component built on a nutritional database of more than 15,000 products.
“We track foods for hundreds of nutrients but that's not what customers are interested in,” she says. “They don't go to a package label to see how much Vitamin C the product contains, they go to the label to see how many calories, carbs, fat and perhaps fiber it has.
“Customers will complain about the nutrient content of the food they are served in a cafeteria but then they will go down the street and buy a doughnut,” Luros continues. “Those who are truly interested in nutrition are educated buyers, and they know what foods to eat—lean meats, high-fiber breads, and fruits and vegetables.”
Still, Luros is a big believer in the importance of nutrition education but says the information needs to be conveyed in a way the average person can understand. In general, foodservice professionals agree there's confusion in the consumer world about what good nutrition means.
As CBORD's Tighe points out, “ Nutrition information has never been more mainstream than it is today. People are realizing that it not only matters how many calories they eat, but also how they get those calories.
“There's definitely a trend toward nutrition awareness, but consumers need help,” he continues. “Nutrition information must be provided in a simple form that customers can use, and that's where web-based tools make a lot of sense.”
ONLINE HELP FOR THE ALLERGY AFFLICTEDPRINCETON, LIKE MANY UNIVERSITIES, equips its foodservice operation with sophisticated Web technology-to better convey nutritional information to its customers. But it goes a step further, reaching out to those with allergies.
Its interactive menu lets students click on any of the day's selections to access per-serving nutritional information. Such capability has been a big help to students with medical conditions or food allergies, notes RD Sue Pierson, Princeton assistant director of residential dining.
“The menu works well for those with allergies because it lists ingredients,” she says.“I've used it, too, to counsel students with high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels.”
Some selections are colored coded to convey specific types of food or nutritional elements. For example, vegan items are colored blue while vegetarian dishes are green, she explains.An item is coded if it contains nuts, too, because many students have nut allergies.
“We've also put our employees through an extensive training program so that they understand the importance of sticking to a recipe,” says Pierson.“We aren't trying to stymie their creativity but this information is now published. So if a recipe says it's ‘baked,' it can't be fried or it will change the nutritional information.”
Pierson is currently working on a system to help customers better understand serving sizes.“Everything is self-serve here,” she explains.“A recipe may list an 8-oz. serving, but customers need to know what 8 oz. of a particular product looks like. We need to put those numbers into some kind of reality for our customers such as, for example, 3 oz. of protein is similar in size to a deck of cards.”