FDA calorie-count regs no sweat for seafood

Very few Americans are counting calories today as they gather with family and friends to celebrate a beloved national holiday, Thanksgiving, and all of the diet-busting dishes and desserts that come with it. If, however, counting calories is part of your daily fitness regime, it should soon become easier even when dining out, thanks to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rulings finalized this week.

Within a year, calorie information will be mandatory on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines with 20 or more locations (required by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., stated that posting nutritional information is important because Americans consume about one-third of their calories away from home.

But according to historical data, roughly two-thirds of all seafood consumed by Americans is at a foodservice establishment of some sort. This new regulation, while seemingly burdensome for restaurant operators, is an opportunity for seafood — a lean protein, generally low in calories but high in protein — to sell.

This change is not a surprise. Large seafood restaurant chains like Red Lobster, Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s have been aware that this rule change was in the works and are prepared to meet the requirements. The National Restaurant Association supports the regulation, which it claims will be available in more than 200,000 restaurant locations nationwide.

Ivar's Seafood Restaurants & Chowder, which operates three full-service restaurants, 24 fast-casual seafood bars and 20 concessions at prominent sports arenas, has a head start considering King County, Washington, passed a similar law five years ago. The law offered Ivar's the opportunity to test detailed nutritional labeling at the point of sale, a company spokesperson said. The company did so proactively because "seafood is robust in health benefits. By giving the customer the ability to choose the species and preparations paired with the added nutritional data, we gave them the control in their own nutrition." 

Eating out is, apparently, not a very healthy thing to do in general: According to analysis published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in 2012, 96 percent of America’s chain restaurant entreés are outside of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendations for fat, saturated fat and sodium. So finding a dish that meets any definition of healthful can be a challenge.

But when you compare the numbers, seafood will be looking svelte on menus. I spoke with Rima Kleiner, a registered dietician working with the National Fisheries Institute, about how seafood stacks up with other animal proteins common on U.S. restaurant menus. Here are some numbers she provided for an average 4-ounce portion, cooked as simply as possible:

EntreeCaloriesProtein (g)Total fat (g)Cholesterol (mg)
Atlantic cod, grilled119260.962
Wild salmon, grilled209318.548
Porterhouse steak, grilled2503113968
Skinless chicken, grilled171343.6118
Pork tenderloin, roasted167294.583

“Generally speaking, the healthier prepared seafood options — baked, broiled, grilled — definitely will have a lower calorie count and saturated fat count than some other animal proteins on the menu,” said Kleiner. “Any type of breading or frying will add to the calorie count; that drives the nutrient profile. But seafood is inherently low in calories and saturated fat and will stand up to the other animal proteins, based on the sheer fact that it has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids the other proteins don’t have.”

Compliance with the new FDA regulations will be mandatory after one year (other nutritional information such as fat, saturated fat, sodium, fiber and carbohydrates, must be provided upon request), but regardless of the resources necessary to provide this information to consumers, the information they’ll get about seafood will only serve to reinforce the fact that the average whitefish, salmon or shellfish dinner is often the healthiest option on the menu.

Linda Cornish, executive director of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, a national non-profit addressing America’s public health crisis through a seafood-rich diet, agrees.

“Hopefully this will be an opportunity for the consumer to learn that seafood is a powerful nutrient package that is high in lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals; and that they will be empowered to build satiating meals that are both tasty and healthy centered around seafood,” she said.

This rule change should be seen as yet another opportunity for the seafood industry to show off the best attributes its product has to offer. Our advice is to make the most of it.


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