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Calories, "Healthy", and Restaurant Menus

I love information. Absolutely love it. The more I've reflected on this fact, the more I realize that my job, my hobbies, and my interests all tend to revolve around acquiring interesting data. So when California instituted its menu labeling law (California Health and Safety Code Section 114094) two years ago, I was very pleased, not only as a data-lover, but as someone who'd rather eat 600 calories over 1,100, given the choice on a menu.

One problem I've faced, however, is that not all restaurants are required to give nutrional information for their food - if a company has fewer than 20 locations, they're exempt. This is apparently because a "small" restaurant or chain can't afford the costs associated with food testing to determine nutritional info. I think that's a load of manure, personally (a chain with 15 restuarants is by no means small and poor), but it's the law. 

What really surprises me, though, is that restaurants that sell themselves as "healthy" refuse to go above and beyond the legal requirements and provide nutrional info. The worst offender I've found so far, and also a restaurant I love, is the Veggie Grill. But their opinion on the matter is pretty well spelled out in the following I received from them after complaining loudly on their Facebook page:

We apologize that we do not have full nutritional details on our menu items. The yet to be released FDA menu nutritional labeling guidelines requiring restaurants to have full nutritional details will apply only to restaurants with 20 or more locations as the government acknowledges that the effort to compile and maintain this information is too burdensome for smaller restaurant companies. 

We have been advised that we would need a large food analysis lab to do the analysis since we need to have a company with liability insurance to stand behind their work (we live in a very litigious society). This of course makes it an expensive proposition (approximately $30,000), particularly for a new, small company such as ours.

That being said, we are very proud of the fact that our menu is 100% plant-based with absolutely no cholesterol, animal fat, trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup. 

Numerous studies have shown that eating 100% plant-based foods is the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and to maintain a healthy weight. We recommend "The China Study" by Dr. T. Colin Campbell ( for anybody who would like to learn more about these studies.

As I believe you may be aware, additional information regarding our nutritional philosophy can be found at 

Our mission to build an enduring brand that helps people and the planet can only succeed if we listen carefully to guests such as yourself. Opening 7 restaurants and hiring 220 people over the past 4 tough years has been very difficult and expensive, but we are trying hard to make a go of it.

Are calories everything? No. And I agree that eating a plant based diet is almost by default healthier than one with meat, especially if that meat is factory-farmed. But calories, as well as other pieces of nutrional information, are vital for many people on many kinds of diets (weight loss, and otherwise). I've touched on this topic before, with swear words.

If you've never eaten at Veggie Grill, you're missing out on two things: very delicious passable-as-real-chicken-sandwich vegan food, and grease. Their food tastes good, in part, because it's high in fat, and likely high in salt as well. This is all well and good if you know what you're getting into, but when all the marketing material for a restaurant touts its health benefits while refusing any mention of meal calories, there's a strong likelihood of confusion. 

Above all else, it makes me wonder if the company is just too poor to do a nutrional analysis (not likely, given they only open in boutique locations with high rents, and charge full-service prices for their counter-service food), or if they're hiding something. All I know is that if I'm looking for low-calorie, I look elsewhere.

(This entry has been cross-posted to my new/old blog, Insignifica)

Wanted: "Authentic" Mexican food in Orange County

veggiemex.jpgAlmost exactly two years ago (while writing at Liberal Atheist Vegetarian), I set out to find the best vegetarian Mexican food in OC. Judging the difference between a good enchilada platter and a bad one is the easy part - the real challenge is actually finding "authentic"-style restaurants that are vegetarian friendly. From the original post:

I'm looking for the best Mexican restaurants in (and around -- I'm willing to make a short drive) Orange County. They can be large chain restaurants, small mom-and-pop places, fast food, even non-traditional styles. Where do you like to eat?

There are a few rules. All of the base ingredients must be vegetarian. This includes the beans, rice, tortillas (corn and flour), and chips. They must use vegetarian cooking oil, and there should be something vegetarian on the menu beyond a bean and cheese burrito. If you're not sure, suggest a place and I'll do the research.

These don't have to be all-vegetarian restaurants - in fact, I'd kinda prefer if they weren't. I'm looking for a good Socal-style Mexican restaurant experience that I can share with my meat-eating friends, but where I'm not limited by ingredients. 

So I need your help. Throw out ideas of locations you like to eat - either places you already know about, or somewhere that looks promising. I'll compile results (with a breakdown of both their vegetarianness and tastiness) and list them here. If you're interested, I'd even like to go out to your favorite places with you, so there's a meetup aspect to this as well.

What's good?

Gardein, Gardein everywhere!

crispy_tenders_295x35052.jpgIt's interesting what a difference a year can make. When I stopped regularly posting to TofuFighting last August, the only place I'd seen Gardein brand meat substitutes was at Fresh and Easy and Whole Foods - they sell little two-to-three serving packets of pre-seasoned fake meats, in "beef" and "chicken" varieties. Easily one of the best-tasting products out there (though some of the flavors didn't appeal to me), and the consistancy is the most reminisant of meat that I've had (especially the chicken).

Fast foward to today. Gardein is everywhere:

Chipotle is serving Gardein as "Garden Blend" at select stores in New York, Washington DC, and California, and last week expanded to include many of their Los Angeles-area locations (sorry OC and the IE, none for us, yet). I tried it last week, and found it a bit dry - it didn't have the flavor I expected (and had heard about). I'm more than willing to give it another try.

The Yard House, a generally west-coast brewpub restaurant, is serving Gardein as a replacement for meat in almost all of their menu items. Some vegans are freaking out because the menu items themselves aren't vegan, but still, to have a vegan replacement that's not just a veggie burger is amazing to me. Right now it's available at their Irvine location, but it should go company-wide later this year.

Select Costco locations are now selling large bags of Gardein Crispy Tenders (fake chicken tenders) for $9.99 for 40 pieces. As is often the case with Costco, not all locations carry it, and it will likely disappear at some point as well. Keep buying it, and it may not. Such are the whims of Costco.

I'm sure it's found its way to other locations as well, but three major chains, in the space of a few months, is a fairly impressive feat for a vegan product. The best part is that it's actually good. I'm hoping more places jump on this bandwagon.

Cover Story

vnanewsletter.jpgHello Readers! A quick update to let you all know that yours truly has the cover story on this month's Vegetarian Network of Austin newsletter, "Austin Vegetarian Living". It's about how to eat vegetarian/vegan at Mexican restaurants (and how difficult it can be).

I'm hoping to start posting here more, with links to other great blogs and original stuff. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Damn you, El Pollo Loco...

Based on what I can gather from this post over at the Fast Food Maven, El Pollo Loco's rice, while never anything special, will no longer be vegetarian once it's reformulated in the coming months. That's too bad, because their BRC burritos are a semi-staple for me (well, I go there once a month or so), and it's always been nice to have another burrito choice besides Del Taco and Taco Bell. Alas, if the only thing I can eat there is the beans, I very likely won't go anymore. I'm sure I'm not the only vegetarian, either.

Thank you, Little Caesar's!

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I must say that I haven't been to a Little Caesar's in a LONG time - but back in the day, their $5 pizzas were a mainstay in our household. That said, I might start going back, because they're all kinds of awesome for having this kind of information on their website:

Vegetarian Options at Little Caesars
Little Caesars wants to help meet the growing needs of our vegetarian customers and offers them many appropriate menu choices. Vegetarian diets that allow dairy products can easily be planned to meet nutritional adequacy using any of the Little Caesars vegetarian-style pizzas. Little Caesars pizzas can be ordered with cheese-only or with any of our fresh vegetable toppings including onions, green peppers, and tomato slices. Mushrooms, ripe olives, and pineapples are also available toppings. Banana pepper rings can be added to give some "zip" to any vegetable-topped pizza.

Please note: Topping selection varies by location. Visit your local Little Caesars Pizza restaurant for topping availability.

For the Strict Vegetarian Diet (Vegan Diet)

A strict vegetarian diet requires a little more planning for nutritional adequacy because it may require special conditions such as no animal by-products. Little Caesars' pizza crust is made with a quality, high-protein flour and contains no animal products or by-products. The sauce is made from crushed tomatoes and is seasoned with a special blend of herbs and spices - it also is made without animal by-products. This means that customers who are strict vegetarians can order a Little Caesars vegetable pizza, without cheese, and still fulfill their needs.

There are other items that can be special-ordered from our menu that are acceptable for a strict vegetarian diet. For example, Crazy Bread® can be ordered without Parmesan cheese along with an order of Crazy Sauce® on the side.

If every restaurant (especially chains!) had a page like this on their site, my life would be much, much simpler. It doesn't take much to make me happy: Know what "vegetarian" and "vegan" mean, and tell me, simply, what's in your food. Little Caesar's does it perfectly.

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