Five Questions for: Cindy Hogenson and Janet Paul Rice
Interest in the nutritional content of food is only growing at college campuses such as 2,800-student Concordia College. To answer student demand for this information, the Concordia College Dining Services team developed a program called Mission Nutrition, which details all the nutritional information for each menu item. Cindy Hogenson, residential dining manager, and Janet Paul Rice, associate director, spoke to FSD about the program.
How did the idea for the program come about?
The program came about because of customer requests to provide more nutrition information for our menu items. We had a simple labeling program in place for many years, but the new version includes coding for key nutrients, providing a better profile of the relative healthfulness of each menu item. We implemented a Web-based nutritional analysis program so that our customers could get nutrition and ingredient information for all the foods we served. We have a kiosk in our dining room so that students can access the information when they come in to eat. The kiosk is convenient, but our customers were still requesting more information at the point of sale.
How does the label work?
The label features a color-coded picture of a corncob, a reflection of Concordia’s mascot, the Kernel. The label also lists the serving size and indicates whether the menu item is ovo-lacto vegetarian. Each region of the picture area of the corncob is colored to represent a range of a certain nutrient. The colors indicate the amount of each nutrient. The kernels represent the calorie range, the central inner husks represent fat content, the right outer husk represents sodium content, and the left outer husk represents fiber. The kernels are red if the food is high in calories, yellow if it is moderate in calories and green if it is low in calories. The central husks follow the same pattern; red is high fat, yellow is moderate fat, and green is low fat. The left outer husk is colored brown if the food is high in fiber or white if the food is low in fiber. The right outer husk is colored blue if the food is low in sodium and white if the food is high in sodium. If there is a “V” on the central inner husk, it means that the menu item qualifies is an ovo-lacto vegetarian option. Nutrition information is based on a single serving. The labeling system helps students make educated choices when selecting menu items.
What were the biggest challenges involved in planning/implementing the program?
The biggest challenge in planning the program was determining the ranges for each nutrient. The biggest challenge in implementing the program was the amount of time it took to make labels for every menu item served in residential dining. We have a large menu that changes frequently, so there were around 1,400 menu items for which we had to look up nutrients and physically create labels. The biggest challenge in designing the program was determining how many nutrients would be represented on the new label. The label needed to present enough information about the menu item for the customers to make an informed choice. Conversely, the label needed to be simple so it could be read easily and understood. We determined that our label could represent four nutrients and still be user-friendly. The second biggest challenge was determining which four nutrients would get the spotlight. The first two were easy to identify. We had been identifying fat levels and knew our customers appreciated the information. We had known that customers also wanted calorie information based on feedback. The final two weren’t a clear choice. We had surveyed our customers and asked them to rate the importance of each nutrient. We were able to identify five nutrients to consider from that survey. We researched the labeling programs that food manufacturers and supermarkets were introducing, including “Healthy Stars,” “Smart Choice” and “Guiding Stars” to see what nutrients they were focusing on. Finally, since all of us working on the project have a background in dietetics, we determined the final two nutrients to represent should be sodium and fiber.
What has the feedback been like?
Feedback has been very positive overall. The system provides more nutrition information in a format that is still fast and easy to use. It took a short time for customers to understand that they should look for menu items with the most color and to select items with red colors in moderation. Students seem to appreciate the additional information. They have even asked to have the labeling program implemented in our c-stores.
What advice would you give to other operators about starting a program like this?
Implementing a program like this should be customer driven. Conduct surveys and monitor usage of current nutrition information to gain a true understanding of what your customers will respond positively to. It takes a lot of time to maintain any type of nutrition labeling program. You’ll want to make sure there will be the resources available to keep the information updated and accurate. A good labeling system doesn’t replace the need to educate. Continue to offer customers nutrition information using a variety of media. Be cautious about including trendy nutrition information in a program you plan to keep around for a while. Before starting a labeling system, make sure you understand the food labeling laws established by the FDA. Finally, market the new program and educate students on how to use it. All the work and effort put into a labeling system deserves to be recognized and understood.