Mediterranean Diet at Italian Chains? Fuhgeddaboudit!

A consumer organization reveals Italian food chains miss the healthy mark.

ByABC News
November 2, 2007, 4:44 PM

Nov. 2, 2007— -- Customers at two of the country's largest Italian food chains could be getting much more than just a taste of Italy in their entrees.

They may be getting oodles of calories and saturated fat, suggests a report published Wednesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The report, published in the November issue of the Center's Nutrition Action Healthletter, panned popular Italian food chains Romano's Macaroni Grill and the Olive Garden for their less healthful offerings.

Among the highlighted entrees was the Olive Garden's fettucine alfredo, which served 1,200 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat, according to an independent lab analysis commissioned by CSPI. Another entree at Macaroni Grill, spaghetti and meatballs with meat sauce, treats diners to 2,430 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat.

Aside from finding that restaurant menus may not be entirely forthcoming about the actual amounts of fat and calories in their fare, CSPI's director of nutrition Bonnie Liebman said the higher-calorie, higher-fat offerings could be especially dangerous to those consumers who believe that they are sitting down to a healthful Mediterranean-style meal when they visit these establishments.

"Italy is a Mediterranean country, so many people assume that Italian food represents a Mediterranean diet," Liebman said.

"Many Americans have only a vague notion of what's in a Mediterranean diet," she added. "Most probably assume it's got olive oil, pasta and tomatoes, but few realize that it's missing the meat, cheese and butter in popular Italian dishes like lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti and fettuccine alfredo."

Dietary experts remain split, however, as to whether consumers could mistake the restaurants' high-calorie offerings for traditional Mediterranean fare -- although some agree that consumers may fall into this trap.

"Consumers are certainly at risk of believing that these meals are 'Mediterranean' due to the ambience that the restaurants create and promote in their advertisements," said Dr. George Blackburn, director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"I would suspect that the average consumer would believe that these restaurants were serving a healthy Mediterranean fare," agreed Dr. Charles Clark, professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

But others say there is little chance that consumers actually believe that just because an entree includes olive oil and tomatoes, it is healthy.

"I think the CSPI is really stretching the connection between a Mediterranean diet and Italian restaurants in America," said Madelyn Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Weight Management Center.

"I do not think consumers are viewing these restaurants as consuming a Mediterranean diet."

"I have not seen these restaurants advertising that they serve foods consistent with the Mediterranean diet," noted Mary Beth Kavanagh, instructor at Case Western Reserve University's department of nutrition. "I suppose some people might think that these Italian restaurants might be more 'healthy' than a burger joint or steak house. But I really do not think most people are familiar with the Mediterranean diet and therefore would not make the connection."

"I don't believe consumers actually go to restaurants like Olive Garden or Romano's Macaroni Grill to become devotees of this healthful eating style," said Jackie Newgent, culinary nutritionist and author of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook." "I believe consumers go to these Italian chain restaurants because they love the food and they get filled up without spending a fortune."

Both the Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill were quick to respond to the CSPI report. Both chains noted that customers at their restaurants were free to request healthful alternatives to many options on the menu.

"Our menu has something for everyone, from traditional favorites to lower-fat garden fare items," the Olive Garden said in a statement. "There are also choices available to guests to tailor their meal to accommodate their preferences from whole wheat pasta to steamed vegetables."

"Macaroni Grill is able and happy to modify most menu items to fit the individual dining and dietary needs of its guests," read another statement from Macaroni Grill. "For example, substituting side items or whole wheat pasta, getting sauces or dressings on the side, and asking for adjustments in preparation or a container for leftovers are very common guest requests."