Big Restaurant Chains Will Get A Little Healthier

Darden restaurants is a large restaurant chain that owns franchises like Red Lobster and Olive Garden. A few days ago they reached an agreement with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to make children’s menus healthier:

The changes go beyond what children get to eat. Across all its offerings, Darden plans to cut calories and salt by 10 percent over five years and by 20 percent over a decadethrough tinkering with recipes, cutting portions, removing some fatty or salt-laden foods and adding healthier fare.

Children’s meals will come with sides of fruit or vegetables and 1 percent milk unless an adult requests a substitute. Sodas and fries will not be listed on the menus, but in most cases can be requested.


I’m not a political commentator and I honestly don’t have clear opinions about whether something like this will have any affect or not. However, here are some thoughts:

  • News like this will be symbolically re-assuring to some (and troublesome to others), but in the grand scheme of things these changes are very modest. They’re going to reduce the levels of some naughty ingredients by 10% over the next four years….that amounts to a rounding error.
  • Assuming this was politically driven (and not consumer driven), how likely are the families to just go somewhere else? Or order the other stuff on the menu? The history of food “nudges” suggests this is a likely outcome.
  • Does the fact that this rule is selectively applied to one big company distort the options faced by other restaurants and food producers? Assuming Michelle Obama wants Darden to do this and not Darden customers, and assuming healthy ingredients cost more than unhealthy ones…..something has to give. Is Darden being given a subsidy? Are other restaurants? I have no idea, but this seems like the sort of things that might have un-intended consequences if there’s an “unseen” portion of the law.

This might have some observable impact, but my general intuition about the public health problem is that the most meaningful changes will come from innovations that change people’s decision environment. I doubt this is the case. The real change will come when people have genuinely different alternatives from the status-quo.

Where will these innovations come from? I have no idea. I hope Health Kismet is eventually an answer to this problem, but I’m not sure how big of a reach the company will end up having.

Food Politics has a critique of the news as well. I think she’s more optimistic about it than I am.

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