Students weigh in on CulinArt nutritional facts

When you order a hamburger from City Grill, pizza from Skibo Café, or pasta from The Exchange, do you know what’s in your food? The Tartan Food Tracker, a project currently in beta version, aims to help you find out.

Although work on Tartan Food Tracker is currently on hold, the beta version is available online. It lists nutritional information for food on campus. Next to each dish, the nutritional value is given in a variety of different formats, including “per bowl,” “per order,” and “per cup.”

Some students think the website, as it currently stands, is unclear. Kashish Mittal, a first-year electrical and computer engineering and computer science double major, posed some questions about the food: “What consists of a meal? How much is considered a bowl or an order?”

CulinArt does not combine nutritional information for foods that go into the same carton. So, for instance, the nutritional information for an order of chicken tikka masala at Taste of India does not include the naan or rice that generally accompanies the meal.

Sean Minahan, executive chef with CulinArt, explained why CulinArt lists food the way it does. “Every dish is not going to be the same,” he said. “If you’re dining on campus, like at Pasta Villaggio, where the food is rich, we’re not going to limit what you can and can’t have, and let you make that decision on what’s best for you.”

On food containers bought in a grocery store, nutritional information is listed in servings, but in parentheses there is a measurement of weight that explains just how much counts as one serving. Although Tartan Food Tracker does not list a serving’s weight, Minahan said CulinArt ensures servings are properly and evenly portioned.

“I’m not sure what it is, but a cup is by liquefied volume, liquid weighted ounces,” Minahan said. “The analysis we provided for Tartan Tracker was based on portion size of the protein or whatever food it is, and we measured it in terms of the caloric volume. Measurements for an ‘order’ will be different for different locations. Pasta Villaggio, Spinning Salads, all those are given measurements. With regards to protein, we pre-portion in bags. We also have a cutting team with a butcher shop that portion meat for grilling.”

Paula Martin, a registered dietitian with University Health Services, said, “[Tartan] Food Tracker is currently on hold, and it’s not a finished product and is being tested. Right now, we have launched food icons, and some vendors are putting them on vendor boards and some are not. You can find nutritional information using the food icons described on the Housing and Dining site.”

The icons include “Whole Grain,” “Healthful Choice,” “Heart Smart,” “Vegetarian,” and “Vegan,” and give general information about food on menus. Not all campus dining locations, however, use the icons.

Mittal also posed another concern: “Why can’t each dining location clarify which foods are vegetarian or not, and give a description of each? Someone not from here surely would be confused with some options here.”

While some places, like the Carnegie Mellon Café, list what is in different foods, other places like Skibo Café and Schatz Dining Room do not.

Minahan said CulinArt could do better on that front.

“We do have identifier cards for many places, but at places like Schatz, there may not be total clarity, and sometimes we do miss it,” Minahan said. "It’s something that we’re working on every day.”

Other students have concerns about the availability of food. On weekends, when dining locations in the University Center are closed, some feel that food and drink options are limited.

“We have to spend a good amount of money on food that probably isn’t the healthiest. Besides water, there are no healthy options to drink,” said Joetsaroop Bagga, a first-year biomedical engineering and chemical engineering double major.

Martin refutes this claim. “Our locations are all pretty unique, and we have a system in place in which access to food is broad,” she said. “I’ve been here for seven years, and I’m quite pleased with the food offerings. We’ve looked at health standards and offerings, so we look at access, variety, food safety concerns.” There are healthy options at dining locations, other than sweet or carbonated drinks: The Carnegie Mellon Café, for instance, offers milk, orange juice, and bottled water.

If students have concerns, Minahan said there is a “dining service group that acts together on a monthly basis, with vendors and groups, so if people have concerns, that’s a great place. There are also chefs and managers with our vending locations, so if a student has a concern, they should go to them.”