FOOD prepared away from home is typically higher in calories and lower in nutrition than food prepared at home, but it now makes up more than one-third of all calories purchased in the U.S.
Consumers tend to view full-service restaurants as providing healthier, higher-quality food than fast-food restaurants, but some studies have found much higher calorie, fat and sodium levels in foods at full-service restaurants.
Researchers from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania studied more than 2,600 menu items served at full-service restaurant chains operating in Philadelphia, Pa., and concluded that foods served at full-service restaurant chains are high in calories, saturated fat and sodium and that standard definitions are needed for "healthy choice" tags and for entrees targeted at vulnerable age groups.
Nutrition information provided at full-service restaurants has lagged behind fast-food restaurants; however, a 2010 menu labeling ordinance in Philadelphia provided an opportunity for an in-depth study of the calorie and nutrition content of menu items served at full-service restaurants.
The study included 21 full-service restaurant chains that offered single-serving entrees and provided calorie and sodium information for all menu items on either their websites or printed menus.
The study focused on entrees, appetizers and side dishes but also provided information on other less consistently labeled menu categories.
"The need to educate customers about the nutritional content of restaurant foods is acute because consumers increasingly eat away from home, restaurants serve large portions of energy-dense and high-sodium foods and obesity and the prevalence of other diet-related diseases are high," according to lead researcher Amy Auchincloss of the Drexel University School of Public Health.
Although no guidelines exist for appropriate nutrient levels of full-service restaurant menu items, about half of the entrees did not meet the study's "healthier" calorie criteria, based on general nutrition advice in the U.S. dietary guidelines.
Almost one-third of the entrees exceeded the total daily recommended value for sodium, and only one-fifth met recommended fiber minimums, the researchers found. Items targeting seniors and children had fewer calories but often exceeded the daily recommended value for fat and sodium.
More than half of the studied restaurants designate some healthy choices on their menus, but the meaning of that designation varies; in most cases, only the calorie content is considered, and the items may still have high sodium levels, Auchincloss said.
Nutrition education may help the consumer evaluate these menu items on their own.
Based on related work, this research team previously reported that consumers at full-service restaurants who used nutritional information on the menu ordered significantly fewer calories. However, policy changes for restaurants that parallel those of fast food may be more effective. Having a definition for a healthy entree choice could help consumers who want to choose food for both taste and health promotion, Auchincloss added.
Most Americans know about MyPyramid — the triangle depicting how many servings of each food group a person should eat in a day — but how many know about MyPlate — the circle showing what a healthy meal looks like?
MyPlate was created in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help American consumers put the dietary guidelines into practice. It's a simple, colorful icon that prompts users to think about what's on their plate, illustrating healthy proportions of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy within a single meal.
Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Dr. Sibylle Kranz of Purdue University wanted to find out who "got the memo" about MyPlate first — that is, who became familiar with MyPlate within three months of its release.
In particular, the researchers were interested in mothers, who play the role of "nutritional gatekeeper" in most families, and what traits these trendsetting mothers had in common with each other.
A national online survey was completed by 497 moms ranging in age from 18 to 65 and included questions about their demographics, knowledge, attitudes and behavior.
Of these 497 moms, 46 were familiar with MyPlate (9% of those surveyed), 105 were somewhat familiar with it (21%) and 349 were not familiar with it (70%).
Wansink and Kranz said some interesting patterns emerged from the analysis of the survey responses:
* First, moms were more likely to be familiar with MyPlate if they already knew about MyPyramid.
* Second, moms who found MyPlate easy to understand and relevant to their lives were more likely to see its potential to help their families eat better.
* Third, moms who adopted MyPlate were more likely to be "vegetable lovers" and to involve their kids in preparing family meals.
Based on an independent study released by Infosys, consumers engage with retailers on Facebook more than they do on the retailers' websites; nine of 10 consumers say how much they spend is affected by their social media engagement with a brand, and FourSquare, a location-based social networking service, has virtually no impact on consumer purchasing.
The Infosys report, "Rethinking Retail," was based on interviews with 1,000 consumers and 50 retailers across the U.S. In addition to the impact of social media on spending, the report shows how retailers are struggling to create the kind of consistent and personalized experience online and in stores that drives increased sales.
Other key findings of the study include:
* Social media matters. Consumers interact with retailers' Facebook pages (38%) more than the brands' own websites (36%) — a difference that is significantly more pronounced for younger consumers. Of those who interact with a retailer online, 89% said the interaction had an impact on their purchase.
Women are twice as likely as men to be influenced by Pinterest, while YouTube influences twice as many men as women. Only 2% of all people polled said FourSquare has any influence on their purchase.
* Brand consistency across channels significantly affects consumer spending. Nearly two-thirds of consumers noted that consistency plays a role in their tendency to spend with a brand (63%), with 34% saying high consistency across a brand's channels would mean a greater amount spent, and 39% saying a lack of consistency results in a reduction in their spending.
* Lack of technology. In the survey, 96% of consumers said they expect retailers to inform them of new products. Only 34% of retailers, however, can track consumer trends in real time, reducing their ability to roll out appropriate offers that can drive sales. This lack of technology is the most common factor (38%) preventing retailers from creating a more integrated customer experience within their organization.
Sandeep Dadlani, a senior vice president at Infosys, said, "Creating a consistent experience across all physical and digital touchpoints has a direct impact on sales. However, with the dominance of social media, creating a consistent and personalized relationship with consumers is now much harder. Retailers and brands need to arm themselves with the technology that can ensure their fans and brand advocates receive the same personalized service across channels to increase sales."