Americans Looking for Wiser Restaurant Menu Offerings

June 1, 2006
The many Americans who eat out increasingly are seeking wiser menu offerings.

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."


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.

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.

Healthy, safe ingredients

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines strongly promoted increased consumption of vegetables. Gilroy, Calif.-based Gilroy Foods, a division of ConAgra, is rising to the occasion. The company recently introduced is a line of vegetable purées called GardenFrost, a subcategory of its Softfrozen line. The purées contain small amounts of maltose, a less-sweet sugar that allows the primary vegetable flavor to come though and makes them easier to work with than hard-frozen vegetable products. These can be scooped directly from the freezer.

Vegetables are no longer just side dishes. The focaccia above is packed with ConAgra Food Ingredients' GardenFrost vegetable purées.

The purées are available in flavors such as Fire-Roasted Tomato purée, Fire-Roasted Jalapeno Purée, Asian Blend, Mediterranean Blend, Latin Blend, Garlic Purée, Roasted Garlic Purée, Onion Purée, Roasted Onion Purée, Ginger Purée and Roasted Sweet Bell Pepper Purée. "They're convenient as well as healthy," says Amy Marr, director of marketing. "Using the purées to replace vegetable bases can cut the salt content in half; they're so flavorful the salt won't be missed. Some of the newer products have small chunks of the vegetables and herbs for more texture."

In addition to the Softfrozen purées, Gilroy Foods has introduced Controlled Moisture (CM) vegetables. These products use a mild dehydration process that removes 30-50 percent of the water, thereby concentrating their nutrition. Marr noted that from a nutrition standpoint, it only takes one-third of cup of CM vegetables to equal the nutrition of a half-cup of frozen or fresh vegetables.

Spicetec, Carol Stream, Ill., another ConAgra unit, has been working on new techniques to reduce salt. The traditional way, masking the bitterness of potassium chloride, is replaced with a technology that uses peptide and amino acids, called Amplify, which increases salty taste perception, boosting overall flavor, while reducing the sodium in savory formulations.

Eggs are an ingredient that repaired its unhealthy image from a few years ago. They offer high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and at relatively low cost. Worries over Salmonella has been relieved by a process that pasteurizes the egg in the shell, which allows chefs to make sunny-side-up eggs and real Caesar salad dressing. One marketer is Davidson's Pasteurized Shell Eggs. Eggs offer considerable amounts of lutein, the antioxidant that fights cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness.

Stan Hodes, executive chef and culinary manager of Baptist Health System of South Florida, includes pasteurized eggs in his menus. "The cost was moderately higher, but removing the risks associated with fresh shell-on eggs was well worth it," he says.

"I now safely serve eggs any way our patients want them, and any way our retail guests order them," Hodes continues. "We make our own dressings and sauces with fresh eggs again. As healthcare professionals, we need to stay in touch with and seriously consider these advancements in food safety."

Vegetables, too, are being treated to avoid carrying foodborne organisms. The vegetable corner of the restaurant plate, which once held a scrap of iceberg lettuce and a pale slice of tomato, now is more robust, and steamed vegetable are an alternative to potato. Many restaurants are providing baked sweet potatoes, tasty and rich in antioxidants and fiber.


City University of London report:

National Restaurant Assn.'s Market-Driven Solutions report:

ConAgra Food Ingredients:

U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council:

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