Friday, September 16, 2011

Another big industry announcement: Too little, too late, too slow

A 10-20 percent reduction in sodium is not enough
Some of the big names are coming forward to talk about healthy eating at restaurants. Despite all the ballyhoo, it's too little, too late, too slow.

The corporate owner of such chains as Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze is promising to provide more healthy options for diners, including children.

For instance, any kids meal that comes with a side will automatically come with a vegetable or a fruit, though presumably parents will be nagged to death to substitute the French fries.

And meals will shed 10 percent of their calories by 2016 and 20 percent over a 10-year period.

Michelle Obama
The details of the initiative were announced Thursday by Darden Restaurants Inc. and First Lady Michelle Obama. Darden claims to be the world's largest full-service restaurant company, with about 1,900 restaurants in about 49 states. It also operates Captial Grille and Seasons 52, which carved a successful brand out of the promise that nothing on the menu is more than 475 calories.
The announcement carried a lot of lofty-sounding quotations from both Michelle Obama and Darden President Drew Madsen. And the chain rightly deserves some acknowledgement for at least making an effort.

But given the deadly and addictive properties of high-sodium foods, the company should have been more ambitious. How excited should one get about a 10 percent -- or even 20 percent -- sodium cut on a menu such as Olive Garden's, where the sodium content is often obscene? Lasagna is more than 2,800 milligrams of sodium, and spaghetti with Italian sausage tops 3,000. Chicken Parmigiana -- chicken! -- has an astounding 3,380 milligrams of sodium.

The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, says about half the population ought to limit daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams. The rest should reduce intake to 1,500 milligrams. The latter group includes children; people 51 and older; African Americans; and those who have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

A 20 percent cut in that lasagna -- 10 years in the making! -- still leaves us with an entree that nobody should eat.

It's surprising that Darden's move drew this kind of reaction from the First Lady:

"Even small changes -- things like offering kids 100 percent fruit juice, or water or skim milk instead of sugary drinks, or maybe giving people the option of having their food baked rather than fried, these are the kind of small changes that can really add up," she is quoted on the White House blog saying.

"So I hope that the people who are watching this announcement, particularly restaurants and other companies across the country, will see this and step up in the coming months in the same way that Darden has.

"But I also hope that parents watching this will keep speaking up and keep demanding healthy options for their kids."

I know how Michelle Obama must feel. It's frustrating that much of the industry does so little to enable healthy eating. It's understandable to want to shout about the slightest progress.


But really, the industry can and should do better. And the First Lady should be careful about attaching her name to efforts that ultimately undermine the important message she's trying to deliver.

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