Menu labeling: Should you use chemical analysis to audit the nutrition results of your calculated recipe analysis?

Should I use chemical analysis to audit the nutrition results of my calculated recipe analysis?
A client recently asked me this question. They were considering collecting random samples of prepared menu items “from the field” (their restaurants) and sending them to a lab to verify the results of their calculated nutrition results (using a software program). My answer was no. Here’s why.

  • First, you aren’t comparing apples to apples. Calculated nutrient analysis is based on a standardized recipe. If there is variation in the recipe when it is being prepared (and THERE WILL BE as that is the very nature of handcrafted food!), the activity of chemical testing cannot fairly be used to “test” or verify the accuracy of the calculated analysis work,
  • Second, you are likely increasing your liability. The odds that you are going to get the very same number are slim to none. So, when you get a different number back from the lab, what will you do with this result? How much variability between the numbers is acceptable? Which number will you use in your reporting? These questions are important to consider because once you have this information, you are responsible to do something with it.
  • Third, you might be wasting your money. Because calculated analysis can be used to provide your reasonable basis, investing in additional chemical analysis may not be worth the spend.

There are many scenarios when you’ll want to use chemical analysis – but I don’t believe auditing or verifying the results of calculated analysis through field audits is one of them.

This very topic was debated and discussed with a team of colleagues when working on Recipe Nutrient Analysis: Best practices for calculation and chemical analysis and there was consensus on this issue. Here is the excerpt (from page 21):

“Field audits are pulling samples from a restaurant or foodservice establishment as served, visually inspecting them and then sending them to a laboratory. Field audits offer a number of advantages when used as “quality checks.” An audit can help determine if a recipe is being followed, if items are being plated correctly and if portions are correct. Field audits, however, are not a way to validate nutrition analysis, either chemical or calculated. Because no recipe can be made exactly the same every time, nutrient content as served may differ slightly. If your organization decides to implement an audit plan, be sure to define an acceptable range of variability and have an action plan in place if results vary.”

Food for thought as you work toward menu labeling compliance.