Yesterday, to much fanfare, the First Lady announced that the Darden Group — owners of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among other restaurants — will voluntarily improve their menus, cutting calories and sodium and making healthier options available for kids. In an allegedly bold move, the company is specifically committing to cutting calories and sodium on its menu by 10 percent over the next five years.
What does this really mean? Let’s imagine you’re dining out at Olive Garden one evening. You’ve got an appetite, so you order your favorite, the fried calamari appetizer. For an entrée, you go for the braised beef and tortelloni dinner and for dessert you treat yourself to the Zeppoli with chocolate sauce and a Caffé Mocha. Worried about your calorie count, you skip the beer and go for a Limonata, not realizing its calories match or surpass most of the beers on offer.
The grand total? 3,930 calories, nearly twice as many as you should be eating in an entire day. Fast forward five years and, if Darden sticks to its word — and, keep in mind, there is no guarantee the company will — that meal would set you back a mere 3,537 calories, or 177% of your daily caloric intake (and that’s not even counting the bread basket).
This seems a little underwhelming, to me; not exactly deserving of fancy press conferences and pats on the back, especially when it comes with the publicity glow of the First Lady.
When we turn to sodium content, which the company said it would also reduce by 10 percent, and the story is similar: The meal you’re having delivers 5,405 mg of sodium. That’s three-and-a-half times what the majority of us—especially the elderly and people with high blood pressure—should consume according to the federal government. So, in five years, that meal of yours would still clock in at just over three times your total daily recommended sodium.
This is not just a trifling detail. Sodium overconsumption is clearly linked to a staggering increase in heart disease and stroke across the country. So worrisome is sodium intake, in fact, that last year the Institute of Medicine recommended mandatory limits on salt in packaged and restaurant foods. Michael Jacobson, the Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that acting on these recommendations could “save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health-care expenses.”
Yet despite the fact that Darden’s commitments are far from earth-shattering — the cynical among us might even suggest this fanfare distracts from the many more serious changes that would actually improve public health — their promises got big coverage. Within a day, 583 related news articles, in sources as notable as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, reported on it. In the biz, this is called “earned media.” All those eyeballs reading about Darden? That’s free publicity. Reading about Darden alongside flattering pictures of the First Lady and happy-looking customers? That’s priceless free publicity.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy the First Lady has focused on improving public health and addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity. But — precisely because the stakes are so high — we need to be clear about the difference between progress and PR. Wimpy, voluntary change is exactly the kind of change for which industry wants to get press.
Darden’s announcement is just the latest in a long line of similar proclamations. Remember, Walmart’s “big” news back in January that it was making moves to reduce sugar and sodium in “thousands” of packaged products by 2015? And, as public health advocate Michele Simon reported at the time, we should pause to remember the history of broken promises, too: McDonald’s committed to cut trans fats, but didn’t. Ruby Tuesday’s promised to list nutrition facts on its menus, but back-tracked. Soda companies promised to change the beverages they sold in schools, but they haven’t.
Maybe the Darden Group will reduce calories and sodium content by 10 percent in five years. Or maybe not. Even if it does, the move only scratches the surface of the changes that would need to sweep their menus to make it easier to make healthy choices at their restaurants. In the meantime: split the appetizer, take half the entrée home, drink water… and do you really need that Zeppoli? That’ll take it down to 1,120 calories, around one third fewer than your original meal.
Hey, maybe you should have a press conference about it?