Health & Medicine

Olive Garden, Red Lobster join healthy, growing trend

As consumers increasingly ask for healthier fare, the company that operates Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants plans to 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., company with 1,900 restaurants that include the LongHorn Steakhouse chain, pledged to reformulate recipes, trim portion sizes and introduce healthier items.

"Americans are increasingly conscious of making healthy choices for themselves and their families," Darden chief executive Clarence Otis said last week.

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. Others have clung to longtime favorites that have made them famous.

But as more consumers request healthier options, and a new set of federal dietary guidelines suggests cutting sodium intake by about 30 percent, many chains, including McDonald's, are making small changes gradually. Many restaurants hope their customers won't even notice.

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 said it could not yet provide examples of specific changes coming to its adult menus.

Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies at WD Partners, an Ohio-based consulting firm, said restaurant operators are navigating 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," 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 said the restaurant industry is eyeing sodium as customers' next big priority, after calories and trans fats.

Darden follows McDonald's, which announced in July that it would serve every Happy Meal with a fruit or vegetable, starting this fall. The chain also is 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.

Other chains are taking up the healthy-eating mantle in other ways. Applebee's offers five entrees with fewer than 550 calories, and it works with Weight Watchers to provide "points" values for 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.