July 23, 2020

Access to ingredient info matters, especially if menus change during COVID-19

It may seem overwhelming to keep ingredient information updated, but for many Americans, access to information dictates what and where they can eat.

During COVID-19 restaurants have joined grocery stores as essential food providers. While allergen information and nutrition analysis are legally required for all packaged foods in the grocery store, the laws are different for restaurants depending on the size of the operation. During the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration further eased some menu labeling requirements for foodservice establishments.

Nonetheless, many consumers expect restaurants to be able to list ingredients and provide allergen and nutrition information. The need to offer this information in a clear, concise and easily accessible format grows as Americans continue to rely on restaurants to provide meals during COVID-19.

Digital ordering, limited menus, alternate suppliers, reengineered recipes, and new menu options are some ways restaurants have adapted their businesses amid COVID-19. These changes trickle-down to the nutrition information consumers rely upon. It may seem overwhelming to keep ingredient information updated during this hectic time, but for millions of Americans access to information dictates what and where they can eat.

Allergen disclosure keeps diners safe

New research shows that while 32 million Americans are living with a life-threatening food allergy, there are many more who experience some level of allergic reaction to foods. According to the Food Allergy Research & Education, 85 million Americans avoid buying food with the top nine allergens (milk, wheat, eggs, sesame, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish and peanuts) because either they have allergies or members of their households do. This group spends $19 billion a year on products that are allergen-free.

During the pandemic, many restaurants are tweaking menus. Any change to a recipe’s ingredients may introduce or eliminate an allergen. Allergies and allergy avoidance are more prevalent than before,” says Dr. Rachel Cheatham, founder of Foodscape Group. Restaurants benefit by being transparent and thorough about their ingredient listings because they don’t know where people are on the allergic-reaction spectrum, she adds.

Note too, with the prevalence of off-premises foodservice, servers don’t have as direct an opportunity to discuss allergies with customers. It’s important — and in some jurisdictions, required — to keep allergen profiles updated as recipes and products change because the information is what customers rely on to make dining decisions that are safe for them.

Nutrition information impacts public health

Having access to accurate nutrition information is increasingly important as the number of American’s with chronic disease grow, as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60% of adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, and the CDC reports that people of any age with these and other medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Nutrition information provided by restaurants often is used to manage and prevent these diseases. Restaurants can update information on menus, menu boards, and digital platforms as recipes and products change to help customers manage their health.

“Restaurants and their employees are considered ‘essential’ for providing food. It’s a perfect time to embrace the need for serving healthful options,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, Master of Public Health and CEO of Healthy Dining. “Additionally, it’s important to make sure information is transparent, easy to access and easy for guests to personalize based on their health needs and wellness goals.”