OAK BROOK, Ill. — Nutrition, health and wellness is important to Darden Restaurants.

“In September 2011, we made a public commitment in this area,” said Cheryl Dolven, senior director of health and wellness for Darden. “We choose to focus on the areas we thought we could have the most impact.”

The first area is children’s menus, said Dolven during a presentation at the North American Strategy Session, hosted by the Center for Food Integrity.

“That included making fruit or vegetable a default side and low-fat milk the default beverage with free refills,” said Dolven, who is a registered dietician. “Kids can still get soda, but we’re not promoting it to them.”

The company also committed to reducing calorie and sodium footprint across the adult menus by 20 percent within 10 years.

“That is a lofty goal,” Dolven admitted.

Although Darden Restaurants may be an unfamiliar name to many, the company owns several popular restaurants, including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. The group recently announced the sale of its Red Lobster restaurants.

“We own and operate over 2,500 restaurants and serve 400 million meals per year,” Dolven said.

“Everything we do around health and wellness is guided by three principles,” she stressed. “That includes choice and variety. So whether you want to eat light and healthy or if you want to indulge, we have that, too.”

Clear, Present

Transparency also is important.

“We work to make sure you have the information you need to make the right choices for your family, and our brands were some of the first to have nutrition information available,” Dolven noted.

The third principle is innovation.

“It is really important to continue to identify new ways to meet our guests’ needs, particularly when it comes to nutrition, health and wellness, which is also starting to intersect with animal welfare and sustainability,” Dolven said.

Darden Restaurants strongly supports national menu labeling.

“Over the last five-plus years, there has been a patchwork of state and local laws requiring restaurants to put calories on the menu of every item,” Dolven said. “Since we have hundreds of restaurants across the U.S., all these different laws were really hard for us to contend with.”

Legislation has passed the U.S. Congress to establish national menu labeling. However, the regulations from the Food and Drug Administration are not final.

There are a lot of areas of uncertainty, but some requirements have been determined.

“It’s going to apply to restaurants with 20 or more different locations,” Dolven said. “It requires the number of calories with the word ‘calories’ or ‘cal’ next to that number, so people know what the number is.”

The legislation also requires a statement on the menu that says something like “a 2,000-calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice,” Dolven said. “And restaurants are also responsible for providing nutritional information for about 10 nutrients upon request, which is something Darden already does today.”

“This has been at least a three-year process and some think the final regulation will come in June and then there will probably be a year to comply,” she said.

To Be Determined

Among the many undetermined aspects of the final regulation is if alcohol will be included and also the definition of compliance.

For packaged food, the calorie number has to be within 20 percent to be accurate, Dolven explained.

“For example if the package says it’s 100 calories, it can’t be over 120 calories,” she said. “That’s really hard for a restaurant to meet because we don’t make our food in a manufacturing facility — it’s handcrafted and made to order.”

Many single-ingredient foods aren’t exactly alike. For example, not every orange is exactly the same size with exactly the same amount of Vitamin C. Or even if several steaks all weigh six ounces, the amount of marbling in each steak will be different.

“If that steak is cooked well versus rare, in a six-ounce piece of meat, that could be a difference of 150 calories,” Dolven noted.

Darden only uses approved suppliers, and these suppliers must meet ingredient specifications.

“For food preparation, we follow standardized recipe cards and our chefs receive extensive training — there’s no pinch of this or sprinkle of that,” Dolven said. “We use a very rigorous nutritional analysis process including both chemical and calculated analysis.”

Darden Restaurants has completed lots of consumer research.

“It suggests most consumers have a positive reception of menu labeling and say they’re going to use the information,” Dolven said.

“Some people don’t like it at all because they don’t want it to spoil their good time,” she said. “But, overall, people say they want to have the extra information, whether they use it or not.”