As consumers increasingly ask for healthier fare, the company that operates Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants said earlier this month that it will cut salt and calories across its menus by 10 percent over the next five years and 20 percent over the next decade.
Darden Restaurants, an Orlando, Fla.-based company with 1,900 restaurants that also include other chains, vowed to reformulate recipes, trim portion sizes and introduce healthier items in the coming years.
"Americans are increasingly conscious of making healthy choices for themselves and their families," Darden CEO Clarence Otis said.
The move comes as the federal government and some states have stepped up pressure on the nation's restaurants to post calorie information, given rising rates of heart disease and obesity. Restaurant operators have avoided overtly "healthy" options as a whole, in part because they've feared alienating customers, while others have clung to traditional formulations of longtime favorites that have made them famous.
But as more consumers are requesting healthier options for themselves and their children, and a new set of federal dietary guidelines suggest cutting sodium intake by about 30 percent, many top chains, including McDonald's, are working to effect small changes gradually. In many cases, restaurants hope their customers won't even notice.
"The best way to boil a frog is to put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant industry consultancy. Consumers are more likely to have a negative reaction to significant changes made quickly, he said.
In Darden's case, the company has started with its kids menus, making vegetables the default side item instead of fries and making 1 percent milk the default drink instead of soda.
The company could not provide examples of specific changes coming to its adult menus, saying they're not yet under way.
Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD Partners, an Ohio-based consulting firm, said restaurant operators are having to navigate an uncertain terrain.
"Restaurants have known for a while that you can't get too far ahead of the consumer on this issue, and you can't get too far behind on this issue," he said. "As we see more interest in 'better-for-me' menu options, we're seeing calorie counts on menus, items under 600 calories, items that might be gluten-free and that have reduced sodium."
Lombardi added that the restaurant industry is eyeing sodium as customers' next big priority, after calories and trans fats.
In an email, Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health" and "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating," described Darden's announcement as a step in the right direction and "an admission that restaurant chains contribute to childhood obesity and need to be part of the solution, not the problem."
Another food expert pointed out that a plate of fettuccini Alfredo with 10 percent less sodium and fat still won't constitute health food.
Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, noted that most restaurant portions are large enough to supply more than half the daily recommended calories in one sitting.
"The biggest impact would be reducing portion sizes," Moore said.
Darden follows McDonald's Corp., which announced in July that it would begin serving every Happy Meal with a fruit or vegetable this fall. The Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain is also reducing the sodium content of its menu by 15 percent by 2015 and plans to make additional reductions to saturated fat, calories and added sugars by 2020.
A number of other chains are taking up the healthy-eating mantle in other ways. Applebee's, for instance, offers five entrees with fewer than 550 calories, and it works with Weight Watchers to provide "points" values for those following the popular diet program.
Starbucks, which removed trans fat and artificial flavors from its food in 2009, launched a variety of treats for fewer than 200 calories earlier this year, including cupcakes, lemon bars, and small cake balls covered in icing and served on a stick.