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Restaurants are super-sizing their nutritional disclosures

Fast-food chains are updating their signs and menus with more information about ingredients and pointing out potential problems for those with food allergies and other restrictions. It's a response to customer demands, but it also helps woo diners.

October 22, 2011|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • At P.F. Chang's, diners can request customized menus if they are vegetarians, need kosher meals or want to avoid up to 11 potential allergens. Above, a worker at the P.F. Chang's at the Beverly Center.
At P.F. Chang's, diners can request customized menus if they are vegetarians,… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Wendy's has a gluten-free menu. Dunkin' Donuts offers kosher meals at dozens of eateries. Chipotle Mexican Grill is letting customers know that it uses bacon in preparing its pinto beans.

Americans are craving more information about the food they are served, and fast-food companies, as well as casual restaurants, are increasingly obliging, many going well beyond legally mandated calorie counts.

They are updating their signs and menus for diet-conscious customers, and they also are highlighting potential problems for those with food allergies or other dietary restrictions.

Although responding to demand, quick-service restaurants also see that providing the additional information can help them stand out in the highly competitive marketplace.

"If you can demonstrate to families that you can offer them a safe meal, you establish a tremendous sense of loyalty and create repeat customers," said Chris Weiss, a vice president at the nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. "As we look to the future, we'll definitely see more restaurants doing this."

Healthful eating is already at the forefront of the food industry. California requires large chains to disclose calorie counts for each meal, and similar federal rules are coming next year.

Adding another layer of information is a natural progression, industry experts said, especially for restaurants eager to woo the growing number of customers who aren't eating beef burgers or can't eat food cooked in peanut oil.

Non-meat eaters rose to 8% of American adults in 2009 from 6.7% in 2006, according to the latest figures from nonprofit education organization the Vegetarian Resource Group. Moreover, food allergy cases increased 18% from 1997 to 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some diners are now carrying special cards listing which foods they must avoid. But following those instructions has been difficult at fast-food and fast-casual establishments, where the ingredients are often a mystery.

French fries, tortilla chips and even veggie burgers are sometimes cooked in lard or the same vats of oil used to prepare meat items. Knives used on animal products are sometimes reused for onions, peppers and other produce. Beef flavoring or animal-derived gelatin shows up on vegetarian side dishes and salads.

"If you're going to a fast-food place, it can definitely be hit or miss," said vegetarian and quick-service fan David Chung, 27, of West Los Angeles. "There's something in the back of your mind that knows you're probably going to compromise a little bit."

It's rarely a case of intentional misinformation, said Jeanne Yacoubou, research director for the Vegetarian Resource Group.

"Should we expect restaurant staff to bend over backwards?" she said. "That's expecting a bit too much. Diners have to go a little step further to find out for sure."

Many customers, shaken by recent disclosures about food preparation, are clamoring for more specific information on signs and menus.

After non-pork eaters complained this summer, for instance, Chipotle started redesigning its menu boards to say that bacon is used in its pinto beans. Panda Express, accused in a lawsuit of using chicken powder in meat-free dishes, now has posters in all its stores explaining that none of its offerings is vegetarian.

Analysts said consumers over the next year will probably see a spurt in diet-sensitive menus and signs as companies try to attract vegetarians and others with diet limitations — a population often perceived as having more discretionary income to spend.

"It's not that they're benevolent companies; it's that they feel that they can drive traffic by giving out more detailed information," said analyst Nick Setyan at Wedbush Securities Inc. "It's a way to market themselves and differentiate themselves from the competition."

Signs at Noodles & Co. locations say that staff members share cooking equipment and that there may be cross-contamination with potential allergens such as peanuts, soy, shellfish and gluten.

The menu at Lyfe Kitchen, a fast-food Palo Alto diner opened last week by former McDonald's President Michael J. Roberts and others, identifies gluten-free and vegan options.

The Souplantation salad chain has similar labels and also notes non-vegetarian items such as its cream of mushroom soup, which uses a chicken base. P.F. Chang's prints, on request, customized menus for a variety of patrons who may be vegetarians, need kosher meals or want to avoid up to 11 potential allergens.

Subway maintains several kosher restaurants in the U.S., including one in the Pico-Robertson area, and about 100 halal locations for Muslim in Britain. All are identified by posted signs.

A new Massachusetts law this year requires restaurants to display a food allergy awareness poster in kitchens and to print notes on menus asking customers with allergies to inform servers. Allergy advocacy groups are pushing for similar laws in other states.

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