Less Fat, Still Ono

By Barbara Burke
and Joannie Dobbs

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

Study menu claims
for healthy dishes

If you eat away from home frequently, you may find it difficult to meet that New Year's resolution to eat healthier. Some people choose foods that contain more fruits, vegetables and grains; others choose dishes with smaller portion sizes or skip the alcoholic beverages or rich desserts.

You may choose a restaurant by what is written on the menu indicating a menu item is low-fat, low-cholesterol, or low-sodium. Menu terms like "healthy," "light: or "good for you" may also influence your food choices. But should they?

Although consumers' perspectives on "healthy" eating may vary, there are specific definitions for nutrient and health claims written by the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act Regulations. We see these on food labels.

Legally, a health claim characterizes the relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease or health-related condition. Heart symbols and terms such as "heart healthy" are examples of implied health claims. A nutrient claim directly characterizes the level of a nutrient or implies a nutrient level. The term "lowfat" is an example of such a claim, indicating 3 grams or less of fat per labeled serving for individual foods and 3 grams or less of fat per 100 grams for main dishes or meals. "Made with vegetable oil" is an implied claim that suggests that a food is low in cholesterol, since only animal products contain cholesterol.

In 1996, a federal judge ruled that all restaurants must provide nutrient information to back up health or nutritional claims made on menus or verbally presented by wait staff. Nutrient information does not have to be listed on the menu itself, but can be communicated to consumers in a flier or brochure, on a poster, orally or by any other reasonable means.

The ruling was to be followed as of May 2, 1997. A casual survey of restaurants around Oahu showed most restaurants (knowingly or unknowingly) make at least one nutrient or health claim on their menus. Few restaurants had the nutrient information to back their claims. This then puts the consumer in a buyer beware mode.

" 'Lowfat,' 'heart-healthy,' and other terms that have to do with heart care are the most common claims I see used by restaurants," said Allen Gelfius, a food and drug inspector with the Food and Drug Branch of the state Department of Health. "I haven't seen as many 'low-sodium' claims as I anticipated. Perhaps, that is because of the large number of Asian foods using soy products."

In Hawaii, health and nutrient claims made by restaurants are regulated by the DOH Sanitation Branch. Later this year, the DOH will hold a public hearing as part of the process to bring the state up to date on current federal food labeling regulations. "We welcome consumer input when we go to public hearing," Gelfius added. Meanwhile, consumers can contact him at 586-4725 if they have questions, need assistance or have a complaint to register with the agency.

Most restaurants do in fact offer menu items that meet federal guidelines. Often, however, these restaurants do not really know which items meet the guidelines. This year our column will feature restaurants and recipes from restaurants that meet federal guidelines for the terms low-fat or healthy. Our goal is to present you with ono restaurant options that will allow you to stay within a healthy fat budget.

Health Events

Barbara Burke is a Hawaii-Pacific University instructor who has been teaching
and writing about food and nutrition since 1975.

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a food and nutrition consultant
and owner of Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.
She is also responsible for the nutritional analyses
indicated by an asterisk in this section.

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