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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A little extra heat may ensure safety, but it can also break down the antioxidants that make ingredients healthful, and therefore, of interest to consumers. Temperature control is especially important, because of the possibility that products will be reheated without the precision required in a plant. New techniques that reduce heat damage are extremely helpful in keeping foods safe and their nutrient content rich.

Do individual restaurant managers and chefs think like their counterparts at the corporate headquarters? We asked 15 head cooks and managers how they select their ingredients. Those who were part of chains that make most of the menu decisions appear to understand the reasoning behind the use of certain ingredients for dishes that aren't already prepared. The low-carb trend last year appears to have added knowledge about the hows and whys of certain ingredients. Corporate restaurateurs often are guided by global nutrition vice presidents or strategy directors, and are most likely to feature specified menus.

But the "mom and pop" restaurants are getting the picture, too. They are buying fresh vegetables (broccoli is number one) and they are concerned about offering healthy foods.

It goes beyond the removal of ingredients that are seen as problems. Efforts include products that are believed to be enhancers of good health. Restaurant and foodservice fare now includes more fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and dishes are prepared to be super-flavorful, which promotes reduced serving sizes. These initiatives are certainly seen in the ingredients being offered to foodservice professionals and in the changing priorities of ingredient providers.

Seeking fruits and vegetables

The popularity of certain fruits and vegetables changes from time to time. Not long ago, apples were at the bottom of the pecking order, but thanks to some new research into the phytochemicals in apples and their effect on heart disease, they are improving in popularity.

Nearly overnight, McDonald's became one of the country's largest users of apples when it introduced Apple Dippers, an alternative to french fries in kids' Happy Meals and also used apples in its Fruit & Walnut Salads. Apples and grapes are the key components in Salad Plus menus in Europe and are a Happy Meal option in some countries.

Blueberries increasingly are recognized for their high content of antioxidants. A recent (UK) Mental Health Foundation report linking diet and mental health, including Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, depression and ADHD, recommends: "Certain foods - those high in an antioxidant assay called ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) - may protect cells and their components from damage by oxidants."

"From research labs all across the country and the world, there is growing evidence that blueberries could be powerful little disease fighters," says the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberry.org). The council cites scientific studies that link blueberries to improvements in aging, cholesterol, eyesight, urinary tract infections and other diseases.

Soy, too, is an ingredient with a faithful following. "While soybeans are part of a smart diet because they're high in protein, new research points to other significant benefits from soy - most importantly, its apparent role in reducing the risk of certain chronic diseases," including cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis, says the United Soybean Board (www.talksoy.com).

In the 2005 edition of its annual "Consumer Attitudes About Nutrition" national survey, the soybean board found "60 percent agree that consuming soy-based foods can play a role in reducing obesity while more than three-quarters of all surveyed agree soy products are healthy. An increased number of consumers (11 percent) are aware that soy is a good source of protein, up five points from last year." Further, "More than one-quarter of Americans (27 percent) consume soyfoods or soy beverages once a week or more (note: see graph below). The percentage of respondents (35 percent) who never consume soy products dropped by three points this year."




Organic and sustainable

Foodservice in some urban areas is going increasingly organic, particularly in university towns, where undergrads are looking more closely at the food they eat. A year ago, Princeton University said its cafeterias, in keeping with its eco-friendly foods policy, started serving antibiotic-free chicken, sustainably harvested fish and organic salad greens.

Where does the university get these products? From a growing group of suppliers, especially agricultural cooperatives, like Organic Valley Farms in LaFarge, Wis., which draws upon some 700 small farmers as its source of soy, produce and dairy foods.

Shawn Dean, foodservice manager with United Natural Foods Inc., Dayville, Conn., says his job is 50 percent education and 50 percent sales. Organic foods "is a business you really have to focus on - trade shows, networking, advertising - but it's a fantastic market," he says. "No category in foodservice is totally covered," he adds.

"We have been heavily in the retail product business, but foodservice is growing every day," says Andy Poston, a purchasing manager at Organic Food Ingredients, Aptos, Calif. "Processed ingredients, including bases, condiments and soy milk, are popular with restaurants because they can't call a product organic unless it is totally organic."

It used to be vegetarian or organic was good enough. Now consumers with a conscience also are looking at "sustainable growth" products. The United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs defines it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." "A future that merges economic growth with social responsibility," says one web site. Whether it's alleviating poverty, conserving the Earth's resources or saving the rainforest habitats of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, some consumers with a social conscience are beginning to ask where and under what conditions their foods came from.

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