Go ahead, order the Dagwood sandwich, the Sonora burrito, even the Cajun cod. Just make sure they’re from the “guiltless,” “lite” and “fit” side of the menu.
A study released Wednesday concludes that leading restaurant chains’ low-calorie and low-fat meals are, as promised, much more healthful than regular fare.
But the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends you pass on the salt, since most lighter-menu items contain lots of sodium - from 670 to 2,870 grams - sometimes more than for the regular menu item.
Still, said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist for CSPI, “These meals are far better than similar items ordered off the regular menu. In general, you get fewer calories, less fat and saturated fat, and more vegetables.”
The center tested seven restaurant chains and found 13 of 17 items on diet menus were indeed more healthful and lighter than regular fare, although some chefs added more fat than the menus advertised - in one case deciding to put greasy bacon bits into a light chicken salad offering.
Four items failed the health test because they got more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, the government-recommended maximum.
“We are giving these companies an ‘A’ for effort, but clearly they need to do a better job of communicating with the thousands of cooks and servers at their restaurants,” said Hurley.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the center, added, “Some cooks think they’ll make the customer happier by putting on more cheese, or by filling up the plate.”
The related Mexican restaurants El Torito and Chi-Chi’s were both cited for putting too much fat - 50 percent more than advertised at 18 grams - in their chicken fajitas lite and chicken chajitas lite. Still, the dish weighed in at 790 calories compared with 1,660 for the regular menu item.
“There are natural variations in the raw materials because our products are prepared by people, not machines,” said Gayle DeBrosse, the restaurant chain’s vice president of quality assurance. “But we have been recognized for making progress in providing healthier options for consumers, so we’re pleased.”
T.G.I. Friday’s lite Pacific Coast tuna got top raves, coming in at 520 calories, with only 9 percent from fat. The survey called the dish “one of the healthiest restaurant meals we’ve ever analyzed.”
“That’s one of my favorite items from the light section,” said Amy Heiny, public relations manager for Friday’s. “We’ve had terrific feedback from customers, who really like these lighter options.”
The chain’s Dagwood sandwich, a vegetarian version of the sky-high creation of the comics pages, logs in at 510 calories, with 29 percent from fat.
But to get to those, a diner must somehow avoid the diet wreckers also on the menu. Heiny noted that Friday’s is known for “inventing” cheese-drenched potato skins in the 1970s.
“I love ‘em. I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t have the faintest idea how many calories they have,” she said.
Bruce Silverglade, a CSPI attorney, said the consumer group that helped win passage of the Nutrition, Labeling and Education Act has renewed a federal lawsuit seeking to get the Food and Drug Administration to complete its “truth-in-menu” rules.
In 1993, the FDA wrote regulations requiring restaurants that boast of light, healthy foods on their menus to back up the claims with nutritional information - the same sort of data required on packaged foods. The rules never took effect.
The National Restaurant Association, which has had a long-running feud with the consumer group because of its negative surveys of other restaurant meals, said, “We’re delighted that CSPI has suddenly become aware that there are healthy, alternative items” served in restaurants.
At the same time, the association said CSPI should have used Food and Drug Administration standards for testing processed foods, using at least 12 samples of each menu item. Instead CSPI tested six, resulting in a “woefully inadequate” survey, association president Ralph Brennan said.
xxxx LITE ALTERNATIVES Highlights of the survey of seven restaurant chains by the Center for Science in the Public Interest: T.G.I. Friday’s “Lite” Pacific Coast tuna. Denny’s “Fit Fare” grilled breast of chicken. El Torito “Lite Specialities” Sonora burrito. Chili’s “Guiltless” chicken salad. Olive Garden “Garden Fare” capellini pomodoro. Chi-Chi’s (El Torito) “Lite Specialities” chicken chajitas (fajitas) lite. Chili’s “Guiltless” veggie pasta. Big Boy “Health Smart” Cajun cod. T.G.I. Friday’s “Lite” gardenburger. Chili’s “Guiltless” chicken fajitas. T.G.I. Friday’s “Lite” garden Dagwood sandwich. Olive Garden “Garden Fare” capellini primavera. Olive Garden “Garden Fare” shrimp primavera. Big Boy “Health Smart” grilled chicken mozzarella. Big Boy “Health Smart” chicken ‘n vegetable stir fry. Chi-Chi’s (El Torito) “Lite Specialities” chicken quesadilla. Denny’s “Fit Fare” California grilled chicken salad.