Food-service venues are promoting healthy eating with new vigor, ramping up earlier efforts and cultivating new partnerships
Restaurants, school cafeterias, and contract feeders are putting nutrition data in easier-to-access formats, calling out “superfoods,” adding more options designated “healthy,” and offering incentives for choosing them.
Meanwhile, supermarket retailers with prepared food programs also are trying to help customers make healthy choices — at least, some of them are. Others told SN they're still working on it or that they haven't got to it yet.
For some of these food-service providers, the motivation for these efforts is tied directly to new studies linking healthy diets to improved performance in the workplace.
“In the workplace, employers are concerned about their workers' health,” said Deanne Brandstetter, director of nutrition for Compass Group North America, Charlotte, N.C.
“One reason is health care [insurance] costs have gone through the roof, but an even more important factor, I think, is productivity.”
Statistics show that healthy, fit employees are happier and more productive, Brandstetter pointed out.
The Compass Group, a global contract food provider that feeds millions each day, has as its clients some of the largest corporations in America, as well as hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other institutions.
Even in the corporate world, where health and fitness programs were instituted several years ago, only about 20% of employees are really taking advantage of those programs or consciously making healthier choices, the Compass Group estimates.
The company works with its clients to try to raise that percentage. Creating incentives is one approach. Making the value meal of the day a particularly healthy one, raising prices for less-than-good-for-you fare, assigning customer points for making healthy choices — points that can be collected for a free meal in the future, or maybe to cash in for a prize — are some tactics in play. Offering special introductory prices is another.
“We've seen, for example, sales of veggie burgers, priced low in the beginning, stay above the baseline when the price is raised,” Brandstetter said.
One thing that surprised some Compass clients was that if they told a story around a healthy item, it boosted sales.
“If [diners] know these carrots, for example, come from Farmer Bob down the road, it definitely increases sales,” Brandstetter said.
Other venues are taking up the cause as well.
At Virginia Tech, which has always operated its own campus food-service sites, getting students to eat more whole-grain products became a key focus last year.
Carolyn Bess, a food production manager at the university in Blacksburg, led the charge to participate in a competition organized by the Whole Grains Council that involved offering whole-grain items on menus.
Over a period of about three months, she added 28 new menu items rich in whole grains, and gave away a bicycle as a way to get students and others on campus to try the items and give her feedback.
If they tried one of the new items, they were given a card on which they were to write their opinion of the product. Their cards were then entered into the bicycle drawing.
During this time, table tents and posters told the whole-grain story and promoted the new products.
“We had every grain you could imagine,” Bess told SN in an earlier interview.
“A Hungarian dish using whole wheat rotini, even kamut cereal served in the morning. Kamut goes back to prehistoric days. We connected up with Bob's Red Mill to get some of the lesser-known grains.”
Quinoa salad, whole wheat white pizza, whole wheat chimichangas with vegetables, and granola bars were favorites, and everybody was excited about it, Bess said. Most of the items have kept their place on the menu.
For its endeavors, Virginia Tech's food service won the grand prize in the Whole Grains Council competition.
“We hadn't even intended to give a grand prize, but their project was so inspiring and so effective, we felt they deserved it,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways and the Whole Grains Council.
Meanwhile, FreshDirect, a fresh-food Web grocer operating in the New York Metro area, has continued to add healthy items and now offers a weekly healthy special at a discounted price. The company has also partnered with the American Cancer Society to create a section of its menu called “Smart Eats.” FreshDirect is also currently working with a major health and cooking magazine to develop a line of low-calorie vegetarian meals.
“We're very excited about launching that early in May,” the company's corporate dietitian, Eileen Vider, said.
Some venues have deliberately taken a very gradual approach. At P.F. Chang's China Bistro, for instance, food servers were instructed a couple of years ago to offer diners a choice of brown rice or white rice. Previously, brown rice had been served only on request.
Now, about half of the customers opt for brown rice, said Laura Cherry, spokeswoman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro, which operates nearly 200 Pei Wei Asian Diners as well as 150-plus P.F. Chang's locations throughout the United States.
“We believe you walk a fine line between education and just offering variety. People don't want to be preached to, but they do want to have options,” Cherry said.
In that vein, both of the company's limited-service chains attempt to give customers plenty of options and enough information to enable them to tailor their meals to their own needs.
P.F. Chang's menu, built around stir-fried dishes, is using an optional cooking technique now called stock velveting, in which meats and vegetables are cooked in a chicken or vegetable broth instead of being stir-fried in a wok.
“Stock velveting creates a particularly clean, bright flavor profile, and it does make a big difference in calorie and fat content,” Cherry said.
“Right now, we're working on our website to give people tips on how to do some customizing to get the meal they want. For instance, we'll give them the breakdown of sauces and ingredients they may want to add or to leave out,” Cherry said.
Meanwhile, Pei Wei is test-marketing some new items like tuna tataki. Rather than go into a breakdown of nutrients, a glossy photo set right on the counter shows customers that the ingredients are healthy, Cherry said.
Visual appeal, quality and lots of options are what most retailers are concentrating on to promote healthy eating.
United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, is one chain taking up the challenge.
“We have healthy favorites tagged with a logo in our prepared foods, as well as in other sections of the store,” said Tyra Carter, the chain's corporate dietitian.
United's “healthy favorites” qualify by being low in calories, saturated fat and sodium.
“Mexican charro beans, for instance — and just in the last six months, we've introduced pizza with a whole-grain crust,” Carter said.
“We're working with our corporate chef to create nutrition profiles for every one of our food-service items. They'll offer the same information as the nutrifacts panels on packaged goods.”
The chain aims to complete that effort by the beginning of summer.
Meanwhile, at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., several recipes offered on the chain's website have been altered to create a lighter version alongside the original, said Maria Brous, the chain's spokeswoman.
“Right now, we're working on more of those in our test kitchen. We've recently developed a whole-grain pizza dough, but our immediate focus is on giving customers an abundance of choices.”
In-store signage directs customers to some of the healthier choices, and associates are trained to promote healthy eating, Brous said.
For instance, she said, if a sausage sub sandwich is offered, the associate may say, “We could give you either turkey or pork sausage on this.”
Like other industry sources, Brous emphasized the necessity of offering healthy choices without getting too preachy.
“We try to find a balance between education and offering lots of options,” Brous said.
Over the past year, restaurant chains increasingly have begun to spotlight particular benefits of foods.
Instead of pointing to low- or no-fat or fewer calories, they're focusing on what's a plus, said researcher Maria Caranfa, director of Menu Insights at Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.
“There is more positive messaging, calling some menu items ‘superfoods,’” Caranfa told SN.
Caranfa said she sees restaurants rotating healthy options on their menus more frequently to pique interest.
“The healthy options are still a small part of the menu, though,” she said. “Healthy is not trumping indulgent anytime soon.”
However, Applebee's, continuing its four-year relationship with WeightWatchers, has added more entrees with a WeightWatchers point count and listings for calorie, fat and fiber content.
Caranfa also pointed to restaurants offering smaller portions. Chili's is offering tiny desserts, which contain hardly more than a big bite, and T.G.I. Friday's is giving customers the option of a smaller entree or meal at a lower price.
One industry consultant, critical of restaurants that offer huge portions, said T.G.I. Friday's effort is encouraging.
“It's a step in the right direction,” said Marcia Schurer, president, Culinary Connections, Chicago.
Schurer, who believes healthier eating can be made easy, even fun, has developed a program called “Lose the Weight, Not the Taste: Eating Your Way to Better Health and Wellness.”
She said the program can be customized by restaurants and retailers to spur healthier purchases.