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Separating Hype from Reality on Menus

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When you're on the run or out with friends, it's not always possible to plan ahead and do your research before heading to a restaurant. (If you can plan ahead, Tanya's Food on the Run series is a fantastic resource.) Once there, your senses are often assaulted by glossy photos on menus and table tents, tantalizing smells, and fast-paced sales pitches from servers. Even your fellow diners get in on the act, urging you to try the newest, most popular menu item. "Crispy breaded macaroni and cheese bites wrapped in bacon and served with our five-queso, dragon fire dipping sauce." Sounds good when everyone else is ordering it, right?

While the trend at some hip restaurants is simplicity (Mac-n-cheese: penne + pancetta + artisan Gouda), most restaurants add long descriptions to entice diners. "Fluffy omelets," "real cheese," and "fresh lettuce" become selling points.

But think about it: Omelets are fluffy by nature. Shouldn't all cheese be real? And would someone really serve not-fresh lettuce? (Perhaps, but most customers would send it back.) If you're telling me about a specific type of food--Hass avocados, which have a richer flavor than other varieties; Vidalia onions, known for their sweetness; or Niman Ranch pork, a high quality brand--then please add the descriptors. But if restaurants are stating the obvious, overselling their dishes, or trying to gloss over unhealthy ingredients, we as consumers should be able to read beyond that and make educated decisions.

My number one piece of advice for translating menus: If you would never be willing to eat the opposite of a menu description (e.g. stale bread, soggy lettuce, tough chicken), then the modifier is just hype!

When you're learning to maneuver the thick menus of restaurants and seek out healthier items, it's not always easy. I've scoured menus for descriptions that are full of hollow marketing terms. Let's separate hype from reality. Below, I'll translate these menu descriptions. Do any of these adjectives and descriptions actually mean food is better for us? Or--health aspects aside--does it really make a difference in the final taste? Does it justify an added cost? No restaurants will be named in the list below.

Menu: "hand patted burgers and homemade baked beans"

Translation: burgers and baked beans. While words like "hand patted," "homemade," and "family recipe" conjure images of wholesome, real foods, they don't mean the foods have any less fat or fewer calories.

Menu: "A sampling of our smooth and spicy queso, fresh guacamole, and spinach artichoke dip. Served with unlimited crisp tortilla chips."

Translation: Would they ever say their queso is lumpy? Likely not. Would they serve yesterday's guacamole? What about soggy chips? Nope. While the quality of food at restaurants can be argued, these terms aren't making the food any healthier. And "unlimited" is definitely a menu watch word.

Menu: "Tender, full-of-flavor chicken wings done three ways"

Translation: Shouldn't all meat be tender and full of flavor?

Menu: "A creamy soup made with roasted chicken, traditional Italian dumplings and spinach."

Translation: Creamy tells us it's likely not very low in fat or calories. Roasted chicken is a better choice than fried. But "traditional" doesn't say much. What does that mean? Are traditional dumplings fried? Filled with bacon? As large as a softball?

Menu: "Lightly breaded eggplant, fried and topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Served with spaghetti."

Translation: Ignore the words "lightly breaded." Focus instead on "fried." Those first two words try to make us feel like we're not eating as much fat as we really are.

Menu: "fresh-cooked, thick-cut Applewood Smoked Bacon and crumble aged blue cheese over 11 leafy greens. Then we add diced tomatoes and hand-chopped hard-boiled eggs and top it off with a warm, tender chicken breast and a creamy avocado ranch dressing"

Translation: Shouldn't all the bacon you're served be fresh? Thick cut means there's likely more of it. "Applewood smoked bacon" is a popular kind of bacon these days, but all bacon is smoked. You probably won't notice a difference between this bacon and other bacon. Blue cheese must be aged because the mold that causes the color takes some time to develop. But "11 leafy greens" tells us that we're getting more than just the standard iceberg. (Even though we don't know what those 11 greens are, they're likely dark and full of fiber and vitamins. Finally a menu word that's helpful!) "Hand-chopped" eggs taste just the same as eggs chopped in any other manner. Restaurants love to tell us their meat is tender, but that seems to be redundant, like saying "wet water." "Creamy," as we know, means "fatty."

Menu: "A juicy, plump footlong hot dog topped with warm chili and melty cheese."

Translation: This is a classic description that is meant to entice us. It's a chili-cheese hot dog, plain and simple. The rest is just teasing.

Menu: "seasoned beef patty topped with crisp lettuce, red-ripe tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and creamy mayo"

Translation: Does seasoned=salted? Maybe? It's hard to know. Crisp lettuce usually means you're getting iceberg lettuce (or sometimes the nutritionally superior Romaine) rather than anything dark and leafy. Chances are, that lettuce will be soggy by the time you eat your fast-food burger. As for the tomatoes, shouldn't they always be red and ripe? We'll ignore the creamy mayo, since we already covered that word a couple of times.

Menu: "Two Parmesan-crusted sautéed chicken breasts are basted with a touch of Caesar and served on a sizzling skillet of melted cheese and freshly prepared bruschetta mix. Served with a side of angel hair pasta topped with our zesty Roma-tomato, basil and garlic marinara."

Translation: A "crust" refers to the outer layer of bread, the base of a pie or tart, or "a hard or brittle external coat or covering" of something, according to the dictionary. It happens to be the restaurant industry's favorite adjective. Plop any food on the outside of something else, and you can call it "crusted." (I recently saw pumpkin "crusted" tofu. It was canned pumpkin mounded on top of a block of tofu and baked. Worst thing I've ever eaten!) Here, as in most cases, "crusted" is a watch word. Though "sauteed" is a healthier method of cooking, the chicken is basted (coated) in Caesar dressing, which is high in fat. And--whoa!--this is served in a skillet of melted cheese. That can't be healthy, even though it's served with "freshly prepared bruschetta mix." "Bruschetta" refers to a grilled bread appetizer from Italy, but many American restaurants interpret the tomato-basil topping as "bruschetta." Though they say the pasta is a "side," we can all but guarantee it will be a heaping portion. "Marinara" is usually a simple, fairly healthy tomato sauce. That this one has Roma tomatoes (a popular variety for sauces but nothing special), basil and garlic doesn't distinguish it from any other sauce. I'd really like to know what makes it "zesty." Tomatoes are acidic. Does that make it zesty? Garlic can be pungent. Is that why it's spicy?

Menu: "A warm, soft flour tortilla wrapped around seasoned ground beef, hearty beans, diced onions, real cheddar cheese, and tangy red sauce. You can also upgrade this item with marinated and grilled all-white-meat chicken or authentic carne asada steak."

Translation: Flour tortillas are almost void of any nutritional value. Corn tortillas are usually a better choice. What makes the beans "hearty"? Sliced or diced--does it matter to you how your onions are cut? What makes the red sauce "tangy"? Good to know that the chicken is all white meat, which is leaner than dark meat, but what do they mean by "authentic carne asada steak"? En español, carne asada means roasted meat. So… is this just roasted steak? What would be considered "unauthentic" carne asada? Would grilled or baked "carne" be unauthentic?

Menu: "Hand-dipped in our signature batter, then tossed in coconut and fried golden brown."

Translation: Now matter how you dip and batter something, it's still facing a fryer in its near future. And fry it to a pale brown, a golden brown, a caramel brown… no matter the color, it's still fried.

Need more help eating right on the go? Check out our comprehensive Dining Out Guide.

What is the most audacious menu claim that you've seen on a restaurant menu? Are you tempted by the table tents that advertise specials? Do you believe the hype that restaurants are pitching?

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I don't really blame the restaurants or menu writers for the "hype" descriptions. It's the job of the menu to 1) describe the items offered on the menu and 2) entice us, the customers, to want to eat those items. So, to say "this is just your average, garden variety chili dog" wouldn't really sell many of them, would it? It's not the fault of the restaurant that they want their food to sound really, really good when you're reading the menu. It's OUR job as functioning adults to have some idea what we're ordering, despite the hype. We KNOW chili dogs are usually covered in cheese and served with fries, we KNOW that anything breaded also had to be fried in oil and is therefore high in fat and calories, we KNOW that most restaurants survive on feeding us cheap, nutritionally-bare iceburg lettuce .... Once again, it's all about personal responsibility. Report
This made me laugh because I work at a chain restaurant and our "healthy choices" are crazy with calories and fat. The only thing I will eat at work is one of our chicken and vegetable soups because I went to the company website and looked up the nutritional info on everything we serve. I would suggest if anyone plans to go to a chain restaurant to check online and find out exactly which choices fit into their meal plans and caloric intake before the menu confuses you with all those deceiving words. Report
I couldn't help but laugh out loud at the (accurate) way you picked the restaurant-speak apart. Thanks for this article Report
Thanks, CHEFKATHARINA. You echoed a lot of my thoughts. I don't like it though, when places claim they are doing things in house, like hand dipping, when they really aren't. I have an issue with certain chains proclaiming that they are the "healthiest in America" when you have to do extensive research beforehand to find a choice that won't break your calorie budget for the day. To me, THAT would be a much more worthwhile topic to explore. Report
I think that Stepfanie was trying to point out that you should be careful as you read menu selections, and not be swayed by the fancy descriptions. I agree that Chef Katharina has good points, but - she is a chef, and has obviously had extensive training about the subtle differences in types of foods and cooking styles. I would hazard a guess that most people aren't as discerning when they dine out as a chef would be. I'm glad that Chef K wrote the "rant," b/c I learned a lot from what she wrote, too! As well, I'm glad that Stepf is trying to educate those of us here on Spark who might get tangled in menu language. Report
WOW...what an eye opener. I mean, I DO see stuff like this on menus all the time. Makes it look alot yummier, healthier etc. Glad for the WISE-UP!!! Report
Omelets should be fluffy, cheese should be real, and lettuce should be fresh. But, no, restaurants don't always serve fluffy omelets or real cheese or fresh lettuce. Something to do with maximizing profit in a cost-benefit analysis... So I wouldn't be so quick to attack the farm-to-table movement and the focus on fresh, quality ingredients. It should be standard. But it isn't.

Also, there are plenty of dubious products advertised on SparkPeople as being "healthy" or "skinny" (as if I'm somehow going to turn into a model by eating them). Yet somehow I still manage to restrain myself from buying them... Report
I always love the "home-made" soup. Whose home was it made in? Report
Fantastic blog! Report
I like this! Report
I found this blog incredibly amusing. I work in a school and our menus are full of these kinds of descriptions. The students are pretty amused as well, particularly when the "fresh fruit" would not make it to the table in most of their homes. Report
I agree with a lot of commentors that this blog was stretching things just a bit.
Sadly, the menu isn't trying to convince you that the items coming out of the kitchen are the healthiest foods on the block, just the tastiest. It is also trying to tell us how the meal is being prepared, so that the servers don't have to answer so many questions.
ChefKatrina has it right. It isn't the restaurant's responsibility to make sure we don't over indulge, it is ours. If we stopped ordering fried foods, the restaurants would stop serving them. If we only ordered grilled meats with steamed vegetables, the managers would take notice and direct their chefs to focus on these types of foods.

If you don't like hype, then take a second look at the roll out of _The Spark_ !
I too felt this to be overdone. After all Cheese product, or cheese food could be used instead of the real thing m many people do not know there is product and food on cheese labels.
I was feeling quite uneasy reading this one and was quite happy to realise others found is as offputting as i did. Pat in Maine did not care for this kind of criticism.

maine. Report
I have to say I wasn't impressed with this blog. I felt it was a bit nit-picky and a lot of effort was made by the author to point out the obvious. For instance... "unlimited crisp tortilla chips" translated or countered by Stephanie with "What about soggy chips?"... a bit obvious and a bunch of overkill. Restaurants, at least those I've been in don't serve soggy chips.

There were several more examples but why go there. The bottom line, she seemed to struggle to find something constructive to say re: translations. "Authentic", "hearty", "tangy", etc. Most of us will ask questions re: the menu items we're considering. I was hoping for more of a "behind the scenes", insightful piece rather than reciting those observations most of us readily make when dining out. Report
My husband is a chef. When we first met, we had fun going to different restaurants in our home area on our weekly "date nights" just for the fun of it.

We actually saw the advertisement on a menu (and I can't for the life of me remember the name of the place) that stated on its dessert choices "there are no calories if you don't eat it at home".

Good grief! Report
Ha Ha! now you've got me thinking...... like when they put "our own" ...well whose elses would you serve??? Report
LOL.... I love it! "shouldn't all lettuce be fresh?" Thank you for the smile this morning. Sad but oh so true!

Chef Katarinia sure DID have a rant!! LOL LOL
My dd works as a waitress at a Steak House & she says the biggest problem she sees is the BREAD ROLLS that people will eat before, during and AFTER a meal. People love the rolls and butter! Report
I have to agree with CHEFKATHARINA.
For a healthy website blog those descriptions sure did sound like a bunch of junk food. I don't know of anyone who is trying to eat healthy that would see
"Hand-dipped in our signature batter, then tossed in coconut and fried golden brown" and think- that sounds like the healthiest thing on the menu, I'll take two!
Maybe the article could have centered on little differences like the food showdown emails illustrate. Report
This is a sadly misguided blog. I actually needed to print the "translations" because there were so many that were WRONG. My response is long and may be considered quite a rant but as an industry professional I get tired of being blamed for people choosing to eat poorly. No restaurant forces you to choose unhealthy items. Most of us know what a real portion is. We choose to overeat and then justify it by blaming someone else for giving us too much.

Of course restaurants make their food sound appealing. Would you eat somewhere that described its burger as "Ground Beef on a Bun with some Cheese" or a pasta dish as "A Big Pile of Noodles with Tomato Sauce". I doubt it.

So here goes...you may want to grab a cup of coffee or tea for this short novel ;)

Hand patted burgers means they are formed at the restaurant. That means they aren't processed at a plant. It means there aren't any chemical additives or artificial fillers added. Good information to have. "Hand patted, homemade and family recipe" doesn't conjure up delusions of healthy for most people. Most of us gained most of our excess weight eating our own cooking. I don't know many people who eat out 3 times a day so restaurants aren't the "Evil Villain" they are always made out to be. Our homemade fried chicken won't be any healthier than a restaurants, unless they are using trans fat and you aren't.

Homemade baked beans means they aren't canned. Usually means a lot less sodium.

Smooth and spicy queso means it's not chunky and mild. A lot of people like diced peppers, tomatoes and onion in their queso dip, hence, not smooth. Other people are sensitive or not fond of spicy food. Any idea how many food choices are returned because the patron didn't realize it was going to be spicy?

Fresh guacamole means just that. It was made from whole, ripe avocados, not purchased in plastic tubs or frozen, from a vendor. I don't like frozen guacamole. It has an unpleasant taste. I'd want to know.

Tender chicken..... no, all meat is not tender. The lower the grade of meat, the less tender it is. If a restaurant is using high grade meat, why wouldn't they want to advertise it? It cost the restaurant more to purchase and usually justifies the higher menu price than say... "all you can eat wings for $3.99" at some tavern. Now, I'm not knocking the $3.99 wings but they will not be as tender and juicy as the 8-10 wings you get at a restaurant that charges$7.99 and up for a single order. Trust me.

Traditional Italian dumplings are gnocchi. They are made with potato, flour, egg and salt. Things like spinach or herbs, etc. can be added but then they are no longer traditional, they are special. Traditional dumplings are not fried, they are poached like every other dumpling I've ever heard of and are about the size of an unshelled almond. Most restaurants provide a waiter or waitress to answer questions for their guests.

Lightly breaded is a three step breading process. The product is dusted in flour, dipped in egg and coated with bread crumbs. This menu description is to differentiate it from battered eggplant which does absorb A LOT more fat.

No, all bacon is not fresh. A lot of places will purchase pre-cooked bacon slices or even chopped bacon (which comes in a can) to reduce labor. There’s a big difference. There’s also a huge difference in flavor depending on what kind of wood was used to smoke the bacon. If you don’t notice a difference, you should skip the bacon all together because your taste buds are dead. Just ask for some liquid smoke to sprinkle on your food.

Hand chopped eggs, again, means they are cooked, peeled and cut at the restaurant, versus buying pre-boiled eggs in a bucket full of a solution that keeps them fresh for an unnatural length of time and gives them a rubbery consistency. Or using frozen diced eggs.

A plump footlong hot dog is larger (fatter in diameter) than a regular footlong hotdog. The description is telling you it’s bigger which means it weighs more, which tells you it has higher calories. Melty cheese means it is a softer cheese which means it’s higher in fat versus real cheddar, which doesn’t really melt but softens from the heat.

Seasoned beef patty… due to the trend of this blog, if the menu had said beef patty with salt, black pepper, white pepper, thyme, garlic, onion, allspice and dry mustard- the blogger would have complained that they were trying to entice you into eating unhealthy ground beef. Seasoned means flavor has been added versus a plain beef patty. Again, your server or the manager can answer any ingredient questions you have, even in a fast food restaurant.

OK…Does anyone think a skillet full of cheese is healthy? If anything, this entre description goes out of its way to let you know it is high calorie. Roma tomatoes are different from other varieties. They are meatier (more flesh, less seeds) and are often sweeter than many other round tomato varieties. Zesty is synonymous with robust, which means it’s very flavorful versus a mild flavor. So no, the tomato doesn’t make it zesty…but the basil and garlic would. The menu description that was quoted didn’t say the sauce was spicy…only the blogger did.

What makes the beans hearty? Again, if the menu had elaborated they would have gotten slammed for enticing the guest. If you want to know, ask your server.

Sliced or diced? Yes, it matters. Diced onions are preferable for tacos/burritos, etc. You can end up with long stands of sliced onion pulling out when you take a bite. It can be messy, not to mention unattractive to have a long stand of onion hanging off your lip. Food service uses VERY large onions, not like what you usually purchase at the grocery store.

What makes the sauce tangy? Ask your server.

In a Mexican restaurant, authentic carne asada means it is skirt steak. It can be either the inner or outer skirt. Some places will use flank steak or other cuts of beef, which aren’t really authentic carne asada in real Mexican restaurant terms.

Hand dipped AGAIN means it is battered at the restaurant versus buying a premade frozen product. Nowhere in the description is it trying to ‘trick” you into thinking it is healthy. I don’t know anyone that believes anything fried is healthy, no matter how it is described. The restaurants don’t think you’re that naïve either. Would it be better in the bloggers eyes to just say shrimp or chicken on the menu description and then it comes out battered and fried to an unsuspecting customer??? I like to know what I’m getting, thank you.

Thanks for reading. I hope something in this response encourages you to take responsibilty for your own choices. Unlike the blogger, I am certain that all of you are more than reasonably intelligent and are aware that eating half a fried chicken in one meal sitting is not healthy, no matter how it's decribed on the menu.

Yes, I agree we need to look beyond the hype, but some of the item descriptors *do* make a difference if you go beyond the calories. Home made beans are not the same as canned - fewer preservatives; some people do prefer lumpy as opposed to pureed sauces, though usually we'd say 'hearty/thick'; traditional is informative if you know what the underlying tradition is, and I agree, here I don't know so I'd be left clueless about those dumplings; lightly breaded is definitely better than thickly breaded, though I agree with you that the 'fried' aspect would send me elsewhere; many places do buy pre-cooked bacon bits and serve that, so knowing it is fresh cooked makes a big difference - usually it is softer as opposed to crisp/dry. And so on.

I guess it all goes to show that we each are looking for different things in the menu, and the restaurants are happy to help us find whatever will help us choose! I do enjoy hearing how other people analyze a menu - I always learn something - so thanks for this blog. Report
I normally like Stepfanie's blogs but this one fell a little short for me, almost reaching too hard to make the subject. Yes, it does matter to me how the onions are cut - call me weird but I don't like them sliced (usually too much onion in one bite for me) but do like them diced. Lots of bacon is cooked ahead (as in the a.m.) then crumbled and refrigerated to use throughout the day as needed. Fresh cooked bacon tells me it is cooked right then and there and will likely be served warm. Queso? Yes, sometimes it IS lumpy - depending on how the ingredients are incorporated.

There are a couple of things which drive me crazy (like a restaurant claiming they "hand craft" their burgers or as stated in this blog, hand patting) but it doesn't "fool" me or most people into thinking it's a healthier item than a machine formed burger. The majority of us are a little more intelligent than that....Applewood bacon does taste different than say, cracked pepper smoked bacon or a honey maple etc. I much prefer the cracked pepper over a sweet flavor, so knowing what is being served IS helpful.

Anyway, appreciate the effort, but this blog reached a little too hard for me. Report
should've read this before i hit olive garden for lunch. :) thanks for the very informative blog!! Report
Should have eaten before reading this - got to admit it made me hungry! Or it is just stimulating my appetite? Report
Thanks for sharing the true meaning of these words. I had never thought of them in this way. I'll know from now on!!
Thanks, again!! Report
Love it. Thanks, I knew that many of these items weren't good choices, but didn't realize the emotional value some of the phrases had for me. Report
Very inciteful. I won't be looking at the menu the same again and choosing healthier choises and not relying on their "fluff" words. Report
I've always love "succulent" on a menu. Usually means dripping with some sort of high fat saucy mixture. Report
Very good. I always am trying to decipher menu items at restaurant. Thanks for the good information. Report
Really enjoyed this. After going to Olive Garden yesterday, I can certainly identify. I finally just asked for their low cal menu and ordered apricot chicken. Report
This was wonderful!!! I will never look at a menu in the same way again and for this I am truly grateful! Thank you for "deciphering" for us!! Report
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