As restaurants face the prospect of listing calories on their menus, it's apparent diners want the choice of eating healthier when dining out, but those good intentions do not always translate into action.
In Unilever Food Solutions' latest World Menu Report, titled "Seductive Nutrition," 52 percent of U.S. diners surveyed said they frequently look for healthy menu options but 70 percent prefer to treat themselves when they place their order. Essentially, what people want to eat more often than not wins over what they think they should eat.
Healthier options are frequently perceived as less appealing for three reasons: 45 percent say they think the healthy dishes are smaller in size, 57 percent believe them to be more expensive and 43 percent perceive them as less tasty or maybe not as filling.
In the global survey, which was taken this spring, the Unilever unit surveyed 5,000 diners — 500 from each of 10 countries: U.S, UK, China, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Poland, South Africa and Indonesia — to measure consumers' attitudes on the challenges they face in making healthier meal choices when eating out-of-home. In November 2010, Unilever rolled out its 10-year Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, with one of the main goals being to help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being by 2020.
To help diners overcome these barriers and change perceptions, Unilever Food Solutions recommends a simple solution for restaurant chefs and operators. "Seductive Nutrition," a new approach to menu development, "seduces" guests into making smarter, slightly healthier decisions. It includes a Seductive Nutrition Tool that takes a before-and-after look at 10 top menu items updated with small changes to improve their nutrition profile, reduce calories and enhance their menu descriptions.
The good news for the industry is that this approach can help make operators' businesses healthier too. Seductive Nutrition and the report's focus on health and nutrition highlight one of the fundamental initiatives that Unilever Food Solutions is dedicated to addressing through its enhanced consultation services. Through its "Your Menu" service, Unilever Food Solutions provides tools to chefs and operators to help create nutritious, healthy and profitable menus.
"If diners are looking for more healthy food, it's our duty to make healthy options available, but we still want guests to be satisfied with filling, tasty dishes," says Corporate Executive Chef Steve Jilleba. "Seductive Nutrition is about balancing the health and appeal of your menus. For example, by using ingredients such as leaner cuts of meat and more aromatic spices to flavor instead of lots of salt, chefs can make dishes that are appealing and taste delicious while being a little bit healthier."
In fact, restaurant guests are not looking for dishes to be completely revamped or menus to be overhauled. More than two-thirds of diners would prefer to have just "slightly healthier" menu options to help them make their eating decisions. The survey also found that updated menu descriptions could help entice diners to select the healthier dishes on the menu.
Diners were provided with a healthy dish described on two menus — the first "neutral" and the second more "seductive." When shown a healthy fish dish described on a "neutral" menu (e.g., "steamed trout, whole grain rice, tomato sauce, grilled root vegetables with a garlic and olive oil dressing") and one on a "seductive" menu (e.g., "line-caught steamed trout, whole grain rice, tasty tomato sauce, spicy grilled root vegetables with an authentic Italian garlic and olive oil dressing") respondents in nine out of 10 countries thought it sounded more appealing on the latter. This shows that one of the main barriers to diners choosing a healthy option on a menu is the unappealing way it is described.
A clear barrier to choosing healthier dishes when eating out is the lack of knowledge around recommended daily allowances, RDAs. Globally, a very high proportion of respondents were unable to identify the recommended daily calorie intake for men and women according to nutritional guidelines. At least 75 percent in all markets did not know what the recommended daily intake of fat is. The "nutritional knowledge gap" was widest in South Africa.
This shows how even though some people are aware of their daily nutritional intake in terms of fat, salt and sugar, ultimately the healthier meal option on a menu is not always clear to them.
"Insights from this study show that the small changes to top menu items can make a big difference," says Lisa Carlson, nutrition manager for Unilever Food Solutions North America. "In essence, these small updates serve as a powerful way to help guests choose a healthier option. They can have an enormous impact on the health of diners across the U.S.