Americans Looking for Wiser Restaurant Menu Offerings

The many Americans who eat out increasingly are seeking wiser menu offerings.

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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The world's 25 largest food companies have done a poor job of providing healthy food, according to an April report from City University of London. Studying public documents of the top 10 food manufacturers, top 10 food retailers and top five foodservice companies, researchers found they were doing little to follow the May 2004 recommendations of the World Health Organization, particularly with regard to reducing salt, sugar, trans fats and portion sizes.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Assn. reported last July in a study titled "Market-Driven Solutions" that American foodservice firms (including those with global operations) were extremely active in providing consumers with menus with many healthy options. The NRA acknowledged different firms were moving at different speeds, but that every outlet, right down to the town greasy spoon, was offering healthier fare than it had a few short years ago.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But food processors and ingredient suppliers have good reason to step up efforts at improving the health profile of foodservice products, especially in light of the two huge healthy-eating initiatives of the past 17 months.

As the public understanding of role of antioxidants grows, so does the demand for blueberries … and foods containing them.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans cast a positive spotlight on vegetables, fruits and whole grains, while recommending consumers shy away from saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.

The Jan. 1, 2006 deadline for trans fat labeling caused countless reformulations to remove the dangerous fats from packaged products. While the trans fat rules did not apply to foodservice fare, retail products in one form or another move into the foodservice channel, too. Plus, there's worry that diners will begin asking about trans fats and that future government regulations will ban the fats from foodservice products, as well.

Further, these positive industry efforts are being enforced by dining customers who increasingly are interested in good health and are buying healthier menu products. Some customers will avoid the restaurant that has no healthy offerings.

Philadelphia-based Aramark, a global foodservice company (but not one of those studied by the City University of London folks), late last year introduced a program called SnackFactor, an extension of Aramark's Treat Yourself Right program, a secondary-grade level nutrition awareness program reinforcing a healthy lifestyle message to middle and high-school aged students. SnackFactor offers a wide variety of healthy snack products consisting of 200 or fewer calories per serving, no more than 35 percent calories from fat, 10 percent calories from saturated fat, 35 percent or less sugar by weight and zero grams of trans fat.

"With SnackFactor, Aramark has the opportunity to encourage students to make healthy choices and to help school districts provide effective, innovative solutions around individual communities' local school wellness efforts," says Jeff Wheatley, president of Aramark Education and School Support Services. Aramark serves meals to about 15 million customers daily, ranging from young children to adults.

Sodexho USA, Gaithersburg, Md., which claims to be the leading provider of food and facilities management in the U.S. and Canada, introduced a program called School Stars in June 2003, which includes nutritious menu items and software for foodservice directors to use in creating menus. Another initiative, called Your Health, Your Way, meets guidelines of less than 30 percent of calories from fat, less than 100mg of cholesterol, less than 1,000mg of sodium, less than 600 calories per serving and at least 3g of fiber.

"We see a lot of interest from school lunch programs and vending," confirms Alice Wilkinson, director of R&D at ingredient supplier Watson Inc. (www.watson-inc.com), West Haven, Conn. She says the interest is not just in removing calories, fat and other "bad" ingredients, but in fortifying with health-imparting components. "We can help add in low-dose minerals, like calcium, phosphorus and iron, and sometimes have to encapsulate things like vitamin B to mask the flavor." Many more processors are calling for nutrification, she notes.

The interest in healthier menus is not limited to school foodservice. Applebee's Restaurants offer a number of meals approved by Weight Watchers; T.G.I. Friday's introduced Atkins Nutritionals-approved low-carb meals; McDonald's continues to add low-sugar, low-fat items and vegetable and fruit products, as does Burger King and Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers.

The manager of an Applebee's restaurant in the Chicago area says one of the popular items is Caesar salads of all kinds. "They're popular because they're seen as healthy. Lots of customers know that romaine lettuce includes more nutrients than other lettuce types. Most people have forgotten about the raw egg in the dressing - though ours is made with pasteurized, frozen eggs - and we use low-fat parmesan cheese and treated peppercorns. They are designed for nutrition and safety - so we think they're healthy."

NOTE TO PLANT OPS

For food manufacturers who provide entrees, sauces and half-products to the restaurant industry, keeping the healthy aspects of the ingredients is extremely important, but sometimes at odds with the food safety aspect of the final products.

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