Healthy choices. It’s not just about the food pyramid anymore.
When you’re dining out, making those healthy choices can feel like navigating a maze without a map. How do you know what you’re ordering is good for your body (not to mention taste great) and also be good for the environment?
What it really comes down to is nutritional transparency. As an informed consumer in the 21st Century, you naturally want to know the food you’re consuming is both ethically produced and safe for you to eat. And understanding what’s in your food can help you make better choices about what to enjoy in moderation … or what foods to cut out altogether.
This is made easier when shopping for groceries thanks to regulated labeling, but it can be a little more challenging when it comes to meals prepared for you at restaurants. Below are a few things you should be aware of as you dine out at restaurants in your area.
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” In the culinary world, that generally means livestock or produce that’s been altered by adding the DNA of another organism. But the reasoning behind genetic modification doesn’t always relate to flavor. Most often, GMOs are preferred for items that have to weather transportation or supply a market with higher demand than in past years. For instance, genetically engineered food can include apples that are resistant to browning when cut open or bred salmon who grow faster than wild salmon.
There is an ongoing debate about the healthiness of consuming GMOs, with no real conclusion on either side. But there’s also a real controversy about the ethics surrounding the corporate production and sale of genetically engineered food (for instance, the company Monsanto patenting their seeds’ genes). While GMOs open up production by ensuring healthier crops, it also has been perceived as backing farm producers into a partnership that’s too financially aggressive.
As of today, restaurants (and their vendors) aren’t required to state whether they use or sell any genetically modified food. If this is a concern for you as a consumer, then researching which restaurants promise to remain GMO-free might be a good idea.
An inexpensive and versatile alternative to regular processed sugar, corn syrup is suspected to lead to a number of health issues, including weight fluctuation, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes (and it can inflame ADD and other similar disorders). Reducing the amount of foods containing corn syrup in your diet has shown to be helpful when trying to get healthier. But how do you know if corn syrup is in the foods you order at a restaurant?
When going out to eat, look for restaurants that focus on fresh ingredients in their marketing. The more processed the food is, the more likely it’ll have corn syrup — or any other sweeteners — as part of the ingredients. Restaurants that use fresh produce are always good bets when it comes to avoiding corn syrup.
However, one of the biggest corn syrup culprits that you can find on nearly any restaurant menu is soda, so consider skipping that next time you go out for a meal if trying to avoid this sugar substitute (or try asking if they have a cane sugar soda alternative).
While forms of pest control are a necessity for food growers throughout the world, the use of chemical pesticides can be a problem, especially for children and those with weak immune systems. If produce exposed to industrial pesticides is not washed sufficiently in preparation, the residue can be harmful. However, peeled vegetables or those which are washed thoroughly post-production by the grower or on site at the restaurant are generally considered safe.
There’s also ethical questions involved with buying pesticide-sprayed produce; evidence shows that long-term use of pesticides is very unhealthy for workers handling the produce and that the chemical can cause damage to both wildlife and the environment at large.
One of the best ways to sidestep pesticide-treated produce when going out to eat is by looking for restaurants whose use of organic produce is part of their brand. If the restaurant consistently buys organic, you can feel confident that you’re helping promote a safer farming process and also avoiding ingesting pesticide residue.
One of the prevalent requests by consumers is more transparent overall dietary information for the things they eat. And the U.S. government is listening. In December 2016, certain restaurant menu labeling requirements will be going into place through the Affordable Care Act.
While not all restaurants fall under these rules, more restaurants than ever will be required to list their caloric totals, fats, cholesterol, sodium, and more for each item on their menu. And it’s of note that many restaurants who aren’t required under the ACA to post this information are doing so anyway in order to get ahead of future rules — or simply to provide that benefit to their guests. As consumer expectation for more nutritional data grows, it’s reasonable to expect seeing restaurants providing this transparency to its loyal customers.
If you’re concerned about nutritional aspects of your next meal dining out, consider browsing menus online ahead of time to see which ones feature nutritional labeling … and see if their items line up with your dietary concerns. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say!
Curious about what makes a food “organic”?