Fresh Restaurant Becomes Nutritional Nanny

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I really like Fresh, a small restaurant chain in Toronto that grew out of a juice bar and now has three thriving vegetarian food locations. We used to eat in there a lot – the rice bowls are really seriously good, and the pancakes at weekend brunch are amazing – but the noise levels seem to have crept up in the past few years so we tend to do more take-out. Living quite close to the Spadina location, I often pop in there at lunch to pick up one of their prepared salads or sandwiches. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the crispy tempeh on the salad was salty; in fact, so salty that I couldn’t eat it. I started poking around for nutritional information on their website, and found that they don’t have any, which was surprising for a company where, for the founder “learning about the numerous medicinal and nutritional benefits of many fruits and vegetables brought an almost evangelical desire to share this with as many people as possible”. Apparently, however, she only wanted to share the benefits, not the actual information.

I wrote to the info email address on the website, asking if they publish the nutritional content, and received the answer that they don’t publish that information, and were just writing a statement about why that is. I checked back on the site today, and here it is:

At Fresh, we have chosen not to have nutritional breakdowns for our food and juice menus. Here’s why:

We believe that for the last few decades, food industry marketers, nutritional scientists and journalists have confused us about what to eat. Knowledge that used to be passed down from one generation to the next has been taken over by a money-making agenda put forth by people looking to profit from the confusion. We are taking a stand against this and want to follow a philosophy closer to what Michael Pollan talks about in his book “In Defense of Food”. His mantra is deceptively simple.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Meaning: Eat real food-real ingredients that haven’t been processed beyond recognition. Don’t stuff yourself. Be mostly vegetarian.

Nutritionism started in the 70s, and is basically the science of breaking down food into its various components. For instance, rather than saying “Oranges are good for you”, nutritionism would say “Oranges have vitamin C, fibre and calcium. These elements are good for you”. Nutritionism suggests that food is simply the sum of its parts and that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, and that eating requires ever changing expert advice. One day it’s saturated fat that is bad, next day it’s carbs, then it’s trans fats…what’s next?

I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. For a restaurant chain to basically say that they don’t need to publish nutritional data because everything there is good, when they serve foods that are high in sodium and fat, is total nonsense. I want the data, not a patronizing statement that implies that Fresh knows more about my nutritional needs than I do. I responded:

I read the new section on your website but have a pretty serious problem with it because it implies that I’m not smart enough to handle data such as how much of any particular nutrient is in my meal. I like to know what I eat, in particular, I want the calories, fat, carbs, protein and sodium content so that I can manage my overall food consumption. Sorry, but I just don’t trust you — or any other restaurant — to pick the right choices for me since you have no idea what my specific needs are. I already eat mostly vegetarian, and not too much, as Michael Pollan advises, but I notice that my overall health suffers if I consume too much sodium, or if my protein-carb-fat balance is too much out of whack. That means that I track those things, and unfortunately, if I can’t track what I eat at Fresh, I’ll be eating there much less often.

You need to trust your patrons to make their own choices, not try to make those choices for them. Most people will never go to the website and look for nutritional information; for those of us who do, we really want that information, not a patronizing statement about what you believe rather than the nutritional facts.

If we’re going to get out of the dysfunctional eating mess that we’re in today, everyone needs to become more aware of what they’re eating. For some people, they just want a feel-good nutritional nanny statement like the pap that Fresh already serves up. But for some of us, that means that we want nutritional breakdowns including protein, carbs, fat and sodium. Bring it on, please.

18 Comments

  1. Lee Dale says:

    You’re right on the money on this one. Their food philosophy is fine, but it has little to do with the nutritional value of their foods. Knowing they use lots of sauces, have “high protein patties”, and a menu full of smoothies, there certainly are questions that beg answering regarding salt and sugar content. The health value of these items, particularly the smoothies, is questionable, but I generally wouldn’t touch those anyway: http://ineedsugar.com/post/864107045/sugar-metaphorically-speaking

    Of course, I assume when I eat out that I’ll be breaking compromising for convenience, but if Fresh really is healthier, they would likely see their patronage improve by letting the facts be known. At the very least, you could manage your diet better if you understood the quantities of what you’re consuming.

    Peace.
    Lee

  2. sandy says:

    Thanks for your comments, Lee — I also watched the Lustig video after Joey posted about it, and became even more vigilant about not buying things with high-fructose corn syrup (or any other processed sugar) in them. I definitely don’t eat right all the time, but I don’t want to trick myself into thinking that a restaurant’s food is good for me just because they claim to be healthy.

  3. Katie Lever says:

    I definitely see your point on many levels. However, sort of understand in some cases (maybe not this one) where restaurants or chefs don’t want all their secrets given away. 🙂

    It’s really about disclosure. I understand that people want greater transparency with the people and organizations the buy from today. We’ll even spend more on the ‘right’ things when we can. I just think that today’s conscious consumers want to be reminded every once in a while of why they spend their dollars where they do. They want their values reinforced where they invest their hard earned dollars. If you’ve ever tried to get nutritional information in a fast-food restaurant you know how hard it can be. Who knows what’s in a BIG MAC!? I get it. They don’t want you to know. 😉

    FRESH however does state right on their menu (it’s online I just checked), “It is our daily goal to serve fresh nutritious food as fast as we can. All of our food and juice is prepared in-house and made to order. You can be confident there are no hidden dairy products, processed sweeteners or preservatives in our food and juice.”

    I definitely agree with you that FRESH and many others should better define what their brand stands for and strive for greater transparency – but just because they don’t have the nutritional information posted does not always imply deviancy. When I WATCH a “Juicer” at FRESH take a whole plump apple, slice it, put it in the juicer, then add fresh whole carrots and beets – I’m fairly certain they aren’t sneaking a syringe of high-fructose corn syrup (or any other processed sugar) in with it. 😉 Every ingredient in the drinks, smoothies and dishes are listed on the menu – and you watch them make it. The sauces are a bit suspect, but my point is only that, when you order a salad with steamed kale, bok choy, swiss chard, broccoli, sweet potato & grilled tomato with bean sprouts – that’s what they bring you. A salad with steamed kale, bok choy, swiss chard, broccoli, sweet potato & grilled tomato with bean sprouts.

    Confucius say’s “never use a cannon to kill a mosquito”. 😉

  4. sandy says:

    Hi Katie, thanks for your comment. I’m not asking them to give away their recipes, and I certainly don’t think that they’re adding HFCS to anything. My concern is primarily for the fat and sodium content: the dressing on that salad, the deep-fried tofu, the fries and the overly-salted tempeh. Their menu lists the MAIN ingredients, not all of the ingredients, and typically does not list fat or salt although that is a component in many of their foods.

    Nutritional information at restaurants — even McDonalds — is becoming mandatory in the US in order to allow people to make their own nutritional choices; I hope that we quickly follow them in this regard, just as we did with nutritional labeling on food packaging.

  5. Daisy says:

    I emailed them as well… it bounced back!

    If they truly are serving healthy foods, they should proudly post their nutritional information. If their cookbooks have the real recipes used at the restaurant, we can figure out the nutritional information ourselves, so why bother hiding it?

    I’m also curious to know if they’d give this information to someone who has to watch their salt/sugar intake (ie, a diabetic).

    If only it was mandatory in Canada for every restaurant to post this info (ie part of those health visits?)

  6. sandy says:

    Thanks for your comment, Daisy. I completely agree: if they are serving healthy food, what do they have to hide in terms of nutritional information? There is no guarantee that they use the exact recipes from their cookbooks to prepare the restaurant food, and those with dietary restrictions should beware of any restaurant that isn’t proud to display their nutritional information.

  7. amhi says:

    I completely agree with you. I thought restaurants were required by law to report the nutritional content for their menu?

    1. In the US, certain classes of restaurants are required to report their nutritional content. In Canada, we seem to be further behind in that regard, and I’m not sure if it’s actually required for any restaurant, although many of the chains (such as Swiss Chalet) do include that on their websites.

  8. Amy Priest says:

    100% agree. i ate there last night for the first time and first thing I did this morning was check online for nutritional information. SO frusterating!

  9. Erikag 08 says:

    I think their main concern is having their customers realize just how fattening their food really is. Fresh does a great job of making really healthy food taste delicious by offering various high calorie sauces and carbalicious wraps and burgers, knowing that their customers are blindly ordering these dishes thinking “well Fresh is healthy, so therefore, it must be low-fat.”

    I agree that they need to trust us to make our own educated decisions based on the nutritional facts. I love Fresh, and I am very conscious of what I order when I eat there but whenever I go with friends it seems that many of them buy into the whole “I’m eating a veggie burger with a deep fried onion ring in it, but it’s at Fresh, so it must be healthy” facade. 

    I hope that they will one day post this information. I’m sure we’d all be blown away at just how much salt/sugar, tasty additives are places into our food that we don’t necessarily think about when ordering. 

     

  10. Emily says:

    I’m also disappointed that they would take this stance, but there is an easy way around it. There is a great website caloriecount.about.com/ccrecipe_analysis.php where you can enter the ingredients in the recipe and it will calculate the nutritional information. I’m sure it’s not exact, but it gives you a rough idea. Fresh sells 2 cook books “Fresh at home” and “Refresh” which contain most of my favourite dishes. I made the beach bowl and the dragon bowl last week (with the sauces) and entered the ingredients into this website to calculate the calorie content. If someone had the time to do it, you could pretty much calculate the sodium, carbs, protein, fat, calories etc in their entire menu. Might be interesting to do actually!

    1. You have a very weird concept of “easy”. I realized long ago that I could do what you suggested — in fact, Fresh suggested it, too — but I shouldn’t have to do that. Also, recipes prepared in the restaurants could be radically different from what’s in the cookbook.

      I just stopped eating there, instead.

    2. Sandra says:

      Out of curiosity, how many calories were in the beach bowl? (They claim it’s their most popular bowl!)

      1. I have no idea. As far as I know, they still don’t publish any nutritional information.

        1. Sandra says:

          Thanks for your reply, Sandy … I was wondering what Emily calculated it to be, because she mentioned she used that website.

  11. Kate says:

    Thanks for this post and for your excellent reply to Fresh’s condescension. I am very frustrated that I can’t find nutritional information to make my own informed choices about what I eat there. According to the Toronto Star, though, the Buddha bowl has a whopping 1,168 calories. I had an idea it was a lot of food, but not that much!

  12. Alex says:

    Seems someone started a website that would have the nutritional info but it’s not functional. http://freshrestaurants.com/nutrition.html

    If you hit ‘cancel’ twice on the popups that ask for log in info, you can explore the pages. however, you cannot access the PDFs that show nutritional info. An error message comes up.

    What a stupid response they gave. It’s so vapid and generic.

    1. That site now does have nutritional PDFs for download. Unfortunately, it’s not the Toronto Fresh chain.

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