New App Tracks Healthy Choices at State College Restaurants

May 4, 2015

Jennifer Swistock weighs the chicken from the Sizzling Chicken Fajitas from The Deli on a scale, so she can calculate the proper calorie count.
Credit Erin Cassidy Hendrick / WPSU

“You might want to look away from this if you plan on eating this, it’s not going to be very appealing,” Jennifer Swistock said.

Jennifer Swistock pulls a take out container of Yookjae Jang, out of a bag. The spicy beef and vegetable stew is from Kimchi Korean Restaurant on North Atherton Street in State College. Swistock pours the stew into a strainer over a bowl and presses out the broth.

As the broth continues to drain and settle, Swistock goes through the stew, picking out the noodles one by one so she can estimate of how many calories they account for            

“…about 200 calories per cup,” Swistock said.

She will then do the same for the vegetables, the beef, and all the other ingredients found in the Yookjae Jang.

Swistock has gone through this process with select dishes from one hundred fifty-five eateries around State College.

For the past three years, Swistock has been developing Undressed Foods, a smart phone app she hopes will promote health and weight management for the State College community…especially for Penn State students.

“I have always been interested in nutrition and I realized that there isn’t an application that addresses that transition of going from high school to college, where for the first time, you are completely responsible for what you are eating and your nutrition,” Swistock said.

The Penn State alum and self-trained chef has worked to provide users with suggested meals that not only are healthy, but have the highest nutritional values as well.

The app gives the user three options: general guides — for users that like to cook their own meals—off campus dining and on campus dining.

“The on campus dining, Findlay dining hall, The Mix, Pollock, anything at the HUB, essentially any place you can get a food item or a drink, we cover. We tell you what your healthiest options are. We also suggest some things you might want to stay away from as well,” Swistock said.

The number of suggested meal options depends on the restaurant, Swistock says. A restaurant like Five Guys, has limited menu options Swistock recommends; while Au Bon Pain has many suggested meal options.

Swistock has also included suggestions to help make menu items healthier.

If you are dining at The Deli in downtown State College, Swistock suggests ordering the Sizzling Chicken Fajitas but substituting lettuce wraps for the flour tortillas. That brings the meal down to six hundred fifty calories.

Swistock understands, however, that college students can’t always eat healthy one hundred percent of the time.

“We address the realities of college life, and part of that is having fun and relaxing a little bit after studying all week for an exam.  So, do have things like wings and pizza on the menu, but what I have done I am telling you how to enjoy and get your wing fix in without completely destroying your nutritional goals for the week,” Swistock said.

If you do decide to have a celebratory plate of wings after a long week, the app recommends when you add it to your daily log, to share it with friends for accountability.

Swistock has visited most of the restaurants in the State College area a few times to make sure the portion sizes are consistent and so she can make proper recommendations to users.

But very few restaurant owners are aware of Swistock’s project. She’s kind of sneaky about it. Instead of going to owners or managers, Swistock asks servers how menu items are prepared and what the popular items are.

After learning as much as she can at the restaurant, Swistock takes the meal home and measures each ingredient to come up with the most precise nutritional facts she can.

Not all restaurants have been so easy to crack, so Swistock has had to share her secret project with their general managers to help her track down nutritional facts.

“It really does seem like it can help people that are trying to maintain their weight or lose weight,” General Manager of McLanahan’s Downtown Market, Jim French said.

McLanahan’s was one of the more challenging eateries for Swistock. Many of the items like the bagels and breads are provided by distributors and don’t have easily accessible nutrition facts. So, Swistock and French had to work together to find those facts.  

French isn’t worried the app will draw attention to McLanahan’s less healthy menu items.

“We just cater to what our demographic wants. I am not going to lie, we sell a lot of Fritos. But we also sell a lot of snacks made from quinoa, lentil, hummus, beans — the customers have told us they want healthier options, so we have gone out and made it our business to find sources that carry GT Kombucha tea, we opened a raw juice bar, that is a very healthful thing,” French said.

French says McLanahan’s will continue to offer what customers want, even if that means adding veggie patties to the menu.

State College won’t be the only location the Undressed Foods application will be offered. Swistock is already expanding to restaurants near Columbia University and universities in Florida and Southern California. She’s hoping potential users will put their money where their mouths are. The Undressed Foods app is scheduled to launch soon and will cost $2.99 a month.