Is this low carb? How many calories are in this pasta? Is your chicken stir-fry high in sodium?
If you work in the restaurant industry, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that diners are requesting more and more information about their food. In response, many restaurants are choosing to perform nutritional analysis on their menu items so they can provide diners with the information they desire.
You basically have four options when it comes to FDA-approved nutritional analysis of menu items: CD-ROM-based analysis, web-based analysis, consultant analysis, or food lab-based analysis. So how do you choose? Whether you’re a large chain restaurant looking to get ready for upcoming FDA changes or an independently-owned restaurant simply choosing to give your diners greater transparency, there are a few things to consider before choosing a method of nutritional analysis.
1. What food items are on your menu?
The type of food you serve at your restaurant could dictate the type of nutritional analysis that will work best for you. If you have a lot of house-made sauces, stocks, dressings, and condiments that you use in multiple recipes, you will definitely want to choose a web-based software. This is because web-based software—unlike most CD-ROM programs—allows you to create prep recipes which can then be used in other recipes. Say you use your housemade seafood stock in both your clam chowder and your seafood risotto. Instead of adding all the ingredients for your stock to the analysis of your seafood risotto and again for the chowder, you can simply add your pre-assessed stock ingredient with a single click. Just be sure that the software has a feature that allows you to add and save prep recipes.
You’ll also want to consider whether you have any deep-fried foods on your menu. If so, you will have to get them analyzed by a lab. Unfortunately, this is the only way that fried foods can be analyzed because it is hard to say just how much oil remains in the food and how its chemical structure changes after the frying process. If you are concerned about finances and you only serve a few fried items, send them to a lab and use a web-based nutritional analysis software for the rest of your menu, as this will save you some cash.
2. How often do you change your menu?
Does your restaurant change its menu every season? Every year? Perhaps it rotates some items every few months? Keep in mind that whenever you change your menu, you’ll have to analyze new menu items. If you choose a food lab, this means resending a bunch of new samples to the lab as often as you introduce new menu items. This can be a big nuisance, as wait times for results can be as long as a month and the process can become quite expensive. The same goes for sending your samples to a consultant—you’ll have to pay a hunk of cash each time you have a new item.
With web-based analysis software or a CD-ROM, you won’t have to pay a fee for every new analysis, and you can access menu items at any time by simply entering the ingredients and amounts into the software. You can also save menu items so you can bring them back each year—if you work seasonally—without having to re-analyze them. Many web-based softwares even offer free disaster backup and recovery so you can go to your recipe archives and tweak existing menu items for seasonality.
3. How much time can you budget for nutritional analysis?
Many chefs outsource their nutritional analysis to labs or consultants without really understanding how much time goes into each type of nutritional analysis. Food labs may seem like a time-saving method because you don’t perform the analysis yourself, but it actually takes a lot of time to make, organize, and pack all your food samples to the specifications required by the lab. Consultants seem like another quick option, but they are often bogged down with other clients and requests, so you may have to wait your turn. And though many consultants offer an expedited option for analysis, it usually comes with an additional cost.
CD-ROM software is a good choice at first glance if you want to do the analysis yourself, but the software is often not very user-friendly, meaning you have to factor in time to get someone to train you or self-train. In contrast, web-based software is generally much easier to use than CDs, and some even offer free product demos. Plus, you get your results instantly. Some web-based software even gives you the option to have a consultant do the nutritional analysis for you—a great option if you are concerned about spending too much time away from the kitchen.
4. How much information would you like to provide diners?
Think about how exactly you want nutritional information to appear on your menu. Do you just want to provide calorie counts next to the items? Do you want nutrient content claims that let diners know if a dish is low fat or low sodium? All FDA-approved forms of analysis will give you a basic nutrition facts panel, including calories, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, fats, and nutrient amounts. You can then choose what to highlight for your customers.
The FDA only plans to require restaurants with twenty locations or more to provide calorie information, but depending on your restaurant and clientele, you may benefit from including more info on the menu. If you are interested in including nutrient content claims (NCCs), for instance, be sure that the analysis method you choose provides these for free. Some labs and CD-ROM programs charge more for these specific claims, as do some consultants. Certain web-based software will automatically generate these FDA-approved NCCs for free, potentially drawing more customers to specific menu items.
Finding the Right Web-Based Nutritional Analysis Software
Because every restaurant is unique, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each nutritional analysis method to see what ultimately serves your establishment most effectively. However, the method that typically works best for most restaurants is web-based nutritional analysis, as it is the most time-saving, affordable, user-friendly, and informative of all the types of FDA-approved nutritional analysis. With the growing demand for transparency from diners, it is invaluable to have a web-based tool that allows you to quickly provide accurate nutritional information.
Keep in mind is that not all web-based nutritional analysis software is created equal, so be sure to choose one that has the particular features you need for your restaurant and your menu. A software that allows you to add your own prep recipes, instantly analyze new menu items, perform analysis quickly and efficiently, and provide the information your diners desire will ultimately serve you best in this busy, ever-changing industry.