(May 10) Anyone sitting behind a desk can dismiss low-carbohydrate diets as a passing fad. But if you’re in the restaurant fielding questions from customers wondering what they can eat if they’re watching their carbs, it doesn’t matter if the label is fad or trend. You need a solution.

Before you make giant leaps with menu additions and health organization tie-ins, take a close look at the facts and trends surrounding attitudes, menus and laws.

DIET PULSE

At any one time, about a quarter of the population is on some type of a diet, says Harry Balzer, food industry analyst with research firm The NPD Group, Chicago. The company has tracked food consumption and dieting behavior for 25 years.

About 10% of consumers are on doctor-prescribed diets while 17% are dieting by choice, he says.

According to a recent survey of 1,800 U.S. adults by Opinion Dynamics Corp., Cambridge, Mass., 20% of respondents said they had tried a low-carb diet since 2002, and 11% are on a low-carb diet.

Of those who are not on a diet, 19% said they are very or somewhat likely to try one in the next two years.

The influence of low-carb diet books on consumer behavior is so strong that during the past three years orange juice consumption has dropped 5%.

Market research conducted for the Florida Department of Citrus, Lakeland, revealed that low-carb diets were affecting orange juice sales and that the FDOC needed to boost its health message, says spokesman Andrew Meadows.

Even when they visit restaurants, consumers are ordering less juice. Orange juice servings in restaurants dropped 4% between 2002 and 2003, according to The NPD Group research.

While the citrus department’s promotions have targeted mothers for the past three years, the FDOC is shifting its message to the nutrition of orange juice to counter the notion that the drink is nothing more than sugar water, Meadows says. In April the department plans to emphasize the health benefits of orange juice in a national Operation OJ television, radio and print promotional campaign.

Low-carb dieters also are sticking to their no-potatoes convictions when they eat at home. In-home consumption of potatoes dropped 7% in 2002 compared to 2001, partly because of low-carb diets, says Linda McCashion, vice president of public relations at the U.S. Potato Board, Denver.

However, when they eat out, consumers may be cheating on their low-carb diets a bit. Servings of potatoes in restaurants were up 2% in 2003 vs. 2002, according to The NPD Group.

Consumer research conducted for the U.S. Potato Board showed that only 6% of consumers know that potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C and only 34% know that potatoes with skins are rich in potassium. In fact, the potassium level in potatoes is higher than in broccoli, spinach and bananas.

To help disseminate the nutrition message, the board partnered with Weight Watchers International Inc., Woodbury, N.Y., in the diet organization’s new Pick of the Seasons program. Every quarter Weight Watchers selects a produce item to highlight at its weekly meetings and in its publications to encourage dieters to eat more fruits and vegetables. Potatoes were the inaugural vegetable February through April, McCashion says.

The potato board also launched a new Web site (www.healthypotato.com), which highlights nutrition information and in a foodservice section offers many recipes. Also for foodservice, the board created “The Healthy Potato” brochure with recipes.

RESTAURANT RESPONSE

One thing different about the low-carb diet revolution than diets of the past — restaurants have responded by taking a closer look at nutrition, carbs and calories. It began with fast-food restaurants introducing more entree salads. Then came bunless burgers. Now we have menu reformulations, foodservice operators hiring nutritionists and tie-ins with Weight Watchers and Atkins Nutritionals Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

Brinker International, Dallas, just formed a nutrition advisory council. “They will track ongoing trends and set a long-term strategy to address nutrition,” says spokesman Chris Barnes. Among its many banners, Brinker owns Chili’s Grill & Bar, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

Already the 900 Chili’s restaurants have added an It’s Your Choice menu card featuring 14 selections that were created or modified for low-carb dieters. The card also mentions the chain’s Guiltless Grill items, which are low in fat and have been available since 1993. The card lists the carbohydrates and fiber of the low-carb items and gives the fat content of the Guiltless Grill items.

To come up with this dieter’s menu, “It was just a matter of selecting items that were already on the menu that would conform to a lower-carb diet,” Barnes says. In a few minor adjustments, Chili’s took away the tortillas for its knife and fork fajitas served over fresh vegetables. It took away the bun on its big mouth burgers and serves them with a side of fresh steamed vegetables.

Denny’s Corp., Spartanburg, S.C., also shifted a few things around on the menu and reformulated several of its items to make them low-carb or low-fat in its 1,700 restaurants. In mid-April it came out with a new national menu with a Carb-Watch and Fit Fare section, says Debbie Atkins, director of public relations. The items in both sections list carbohydrates, calories, fat and fiber content.

BIG BANG

Other restaurants have taken bolder steps to offer low-carb or low-calorie choices to guests — which means more fruits and vegetables.

“The industry needs to take advantage of promoting fruits and vegetables as a way to achieve health and weight goals,” says Kathy Means, vice president of issues management for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

“It’s been a tough time for certain commodities, but, overall, (produce) fits in diets after the two-week induction phase. If people are going to do (low-carb diets), ride the wave,” she says.

Ruby Tuesday Inc., Maryville, Tenn., is on that wave. In November, the 500-unit chain launched a Smart Eating initiative with 30 low-carb menu items. “Due to guest demand and the fact that more Americans are on a low-carb eating plan than ever before, we felt the time was right to adjust our menu to offer more choices for our guests,” says Terina Stewart, manager of organizational planning.

Besides placing a low-carb symbol next to the items on the menu, the restaurants display a Guide to Smart Eating on each table, which lists all of the restaurant’s low-carb items and explains the thinking behind low-carb diets. It encourages eating more fruits and vegetables.

Creamy mashed cauliflower is a popular new menu item as is the low-carb catch — broiled tilapia served with creamy mashed cauliflower and steamed broccoli, she says.

T.G.I. Friday’s Inc., owned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc., Minneapolis, is going the distance and formed a partnership with Atkins Nutritionals. The 800-unit chain’s research found that 19% of frequent restaurant patrons of casual dining restaurants are on the Atkins diet.

T.G.I.’s culinary team spent several months working with the Atkins nutritional team to develop new menu items, which are identified with an Atkins symbol and net carbs listed on the menu. A menu insert features the nine Atkins-approved items.

In its partnership with Weight Watchers, 1,600-unit Applebee’s International Inc., with headquarters in Overland Park, Kan, sections off part of its menu with 11 Weight Watchers items that list the points each item is worth on the diet’s point system.

Unlike T.G.I. Friday’s, the Applebee’s menu lists the calories, fat and fiber content of the highlighted items. By the end of April, Ruby Tuesday restaurants was to list calories, fat, carbohydrate and fiber amounts on all of its main menu items.

WITHIN THE RULES

Granted, you don’t have to list calories — or any nutrition information on the menu. But that could change.

In November, Senate and House bills were introduced that would require nutritional information be displayed on menu boards and printed on menus at chain restaurants and vending machines. So far, the House and Senate bills have not been acted upon.

“If we have to put that information on the menu for every entree, the print will have to be small or we’ll have a book for a menu,” says Gene Harris, purchasing manager for Denny’s.

Eating out should be fun. You shouldn’t have to wade through calorie, sodium and fat statistics, he says. Rather, he believes restaurants should have a brochure available for customers who want that information.

Many fast-food chains already have nutrition information available to consumers upon request, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The association has a “Three Steps to a Healthy Lifestyle” brochure available to foodservice operators to give out to customers. You can download and copy the brochure for free from the association’s Web site (www.restaurant.org).

If you make your own printed materials to help guests make smart dining choices, direct them to a Web site developed by the National Restaurant Association and FoodFit, a healthy eating Internet company. It’s called Dine Out Smart and offers tips for selecting menu items. See www.foodfit.com/nra/dineoutsmart.asp.

If you adjust your menu to dieters and choose to take a low-carb approach, keep in mind that there is no official low-carb definition. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t defined the descriptors you can use for carbohydrates yet.

But that could change soon. In February, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, D.C., submitted a petition to the FDA urging it to develop nutrient descriptor labeling claims related to the carbohydrate content of food.

The GMA proposed that items be allowed a carbohydrate-free label if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving and a low carbohydrate label if they have nine grams or fewer of carbohydrates per serving.

If you don’t do anything else to your menu, take a cue from a Washington, D.C., restaurant that PMA’s Means recently visited. A note on the menu spoke to those on low-carb diets trying to avoid starches. “Just tell us to Atkins it, and we’ll replace it with a full complement of steamed vegetables.”

AT A GLANCE

Consumer cries for healthful eating-out options haven’t gone unnoticed. Here are 10 examples of the initiative taken by foodservice operators.

1. Applebee’s International Inc., Overland Park, Kan., has tied in with Weight Watchers International Inc., Woodbury, N.J., and offers a selection of 11 Weight Watcher menu items, which list the number of points each item is worth.

2. Burger King Corp., Miami, hired a chief nutritionist and, in its Have it Your Way fashion, emphasizes low-carb burgers by holding the bun.

3. Chili’s, owned by Brinker International, Dallas, offers an It’s Your Choice menu card that lists 14 selections created or modified for those on a low-carbohydrate diet. It also lists the Guiltless Grill items the chain has had for some time as low-fat alternatives. The menu lists carbohydrate and fiber amounts on the lower-carb items and the fat content on the Guiltless Grill items.

4. CKE Restaurants Inc., Carpinteria, Calif., which operates Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., offers bunless burgers wrapped in iceberg lettuce leaves. They are called Low Carb Thickburgers at Hardee’s and the Low Carb Six Dollar Burger at Carl’s Jr.

5. Denny’s Corp., Spartanburg, S.C., added a Carb-Watch and Fit Fare section to its menu in April highlighting items lower in carbs and that have 15 grams of fat or less. These menu items list carbohydrates, calories, fat and fiber content.

6. McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., hired a director of worldwide nutrition, has added premium salads and apple slices with dip to the menu and plans to offer juice or milk with fruits or vegetables as french fry substitution options in its Happy Meals. It also plans to roll out a value meal consisting of a premium salad, bottled water and a pedometer.

7. Pizza Hut, a Dallas-based unit of Yum! Brands Inc., just added Fresh Express Ranch Salad Kits to its take-out and delivery menu. The salad, which contains romaine and iceberg lettuce, cabbage, carrots and ranch dip, is billed to serve a family of four.

8. Ruby Tuesday Inc., Maryville, Tenn., introduced a Smart Eating initiative with nearly 30 low-carb menu items. A card on top of each table gives the net carbs for each of the Smart Eating items. In April, it was to have been the first chain to list calories, fat, carbohydrates and fiber for all items on the menu.

9. Subway Restaurants, Bridgeport, Conn., partnered with Atkins Nutritionals Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y., to offer Atkins-friendly wraps. The Subway menu highlights the net carbs of the two wraps — turkey and bacon melt and chicken bacon ranch. The chain also has added four new “Atkins-friendly” salads.

10. T.G.I. Friday’s Inc., Dallas, formed a partnership with Atkins to feature a mix of Atkins-approved appetizers, entree salads and entrees. The menu items list the net carbs.