Norris, campus vendors plan to display nutritional information on menus

JuJu Kim

With the Food and Drug Administration’s proposals for labeling menu items on the table for discussion, Northwestern students could receive their food orders from some campus vendors with a side of nutritional information by the end of 2011.

The new requirements would obligate restaurants and similar retail food establishments that belong to chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts of all food items on their menus. Vending machine companies with 20 or more machines would also be required to display this information so customers could view it while selecting items, according to the FDA.

Although Jamba Juice in Norris University Center already displays calorie counts for all items on its menu board, Starbucks, Sbarro and Einstein Bros. Bagels show limited or no information and would have to revise their menu boards under the proposed regulations.

The FDA first released the proposal to the public at the beginning of the month. It is open to debate until June 6, according to regulations.gov, where people can view and comment on the document. However, Steve Mangan, district manager of Sodexo and nuCuisine, said nuCuisine is prepared for the new rules.

“All of us in the food industry are sort of anticipating the onset of the need to provide more information, so everybody’s working on it already,” he said. “We’re already displaying labels on the food we prepare in the dining halls, so I think as our brand partners have that information ready to post, we’ll put it up.”

To update and maintain menu boards with calorie counts, Mangan said nuCuisine would extend its system of providing nutritional information in residential dining locations to its brand partners. Costs for the project would involve a minimal sign-printing fee, he said.

Mangan also said nuCuisine would provide calorie counts for items from vendors at NU with fewer than 20 locations.

Sodexo dietitian Theresa Laurenz said nuCuisine has provided nutritional information next to residence hall fare for years and is pleased that the impending legislation would require chain establishments to follow suit.

“So many people don’t realize what is in their food … There’s a lot of restaurant chains that have very, very high-calorie and fat items,” she said. “People are going to start seeing that information and starting to demand possibly healthier items.”

Medill sophomore Courtney Hardin said she shares the same sentiment of wanting access to this nutritional information. She said she purchases meals frequently from NU’s brand partners and uses nutritional information already displayed on campus. She said she would welcome additional transparency. She believes other students would consult new menu boards as well.

“I think there is a possibility that people will start choosing lower-calorie options just because it’s available,” she said. “When there’s no calorie count there, you don’t give it a second thought. But when it’s available, you’ll take that into account when you’re ordering your food.”

Like Hardin, Laurenz said she believes the anticipated requirements would be beneficial. However, she said they could also provide individuals with a “fewer calories is better” mindset more tools to restrict their calorie consumption.

Despite Laurenz’s concern, some students believe the proposed rules would have a limited impact on campus eating, including Weinberg sophomore Feifei Huang. Huang, who dines at Norris several times a week, said she thinks the new requirements would affect a minority of NU students.

“I think that in general we have a pretty fit campus, so I don’t think that for the general population it would change that much,” she said. “But for people who are trying to lose weight, it might detract them from certain places.”

Huang said she pays little attention to nutritional information available off campus and would treat the information on campus in a similar way.

“There are a lot of places, restaurants, already with a lot of menus with calories right next to the food and stuff like that, and it hasn’t affected me there,” she said. “In fact, I don’t even really glance at it.”

Mangan said he believes most students would react similarly to the calorie counts, predicting that they will ignore the information.

Regardless of the impact of the changes, Mangan stressed the importance of letting students know as much as possible about campus dining.

“The more information we can provide, the better,” he said. “Everybody’s in agreement with that.”

[email protected]