Healthy Food? At a Restaurant? Are You Serious?

Self-indulgence is at the heart of the issue, according to several of the executives. Glanz agrees, but she thinks that attitude may be outmoded.

"This has a historical backdrop," she said. "When people didn't eat out nearly as much as they do now, it was a special indulgence. When I was a kid in the '50s, going out really was a treat. We haven't caught up with the fact that eating out is often just a very common way of life, and it's where we get up to a third of our meals. We haven't changed our thinking. We still think of it as special."

Glanz would like to see a more active role by the government, possibly like the regulations governing labels on packaged food, but that doesn't always work either.

"Food manufacturers are pretty good at working around some of the rules," she admitted.

Just check your local supermarket for evidence of that. The items listed under ingredients on a loaf of bread, for example, are listed in descending order. The first identifies the main ingredient.

On my desk right now is a loaf of "Healthy Multi-Grain Bread," and the label says it's made with whole grains. Public health experts say that's best for us. But the first ingredient is enriched flour, which means the good stuff that occurs naturally in wheat has been processed out of the grains and other stuff has been pumped in. We're left to guess just how much of a slice of that bread is made up of whole grains.

"A lot of the rules are crafted in ways that they can be manipulated to sell a product," Glanz said.

Avoiding the Veto Vote

Menu planners for major restaurant chains have also shown some craftiness in dealing with health nuts. They have to guard against the "veto vote." If a group of folks want to go out to a restaurant, one person can veto the selection on the grounds that "there's nothing there I can eat," Glanz said.

So to get around that, most restaurants try to offer something, like a salad, that even a picky eater can find acceptable. But it may not be all that easy to find on the menu.

"We just completed observation assessments at hundreds of restaurants," she said. "We found that the amount of healthful food choices is just abysmally small, both in sit-down restaurants and fast food."

And that, the restaurant executives claim, is the way most people want it.

"We don't concentrate on offering healthy menu items," one executive said. "We find that people say one thing and do another when it comes to healthier eating."

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