When it comes to defining what healthy means in the restaurant industry today, we can all agree to, well, disagree.
“The biggest misconception about healthy is that it has a universally accepted meaning,” says Jack Li, managing director of Chicago-based food and beverage research company Datassential. “It really does mean different things to different people, and the trick to executing an effective health and wellness strategy is to target those specific nuances.”
And, of course, the food still has to taste good. So what’s a health-conscious, customer-pleasing restaurant operator to do? Plenty, it seems.
The new face of healthy
The definition of what’s healthy continues to evolve, which presents a conundrum for operators as they seek to develop—and effectively execute—a health and wellness strategy in their businesses. To help operators better understand what health and wellness means in today’s market, Datassential has broken it down into three categories:
Consumers’ perception of health hasn’t always been so individualized. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, healthy food was much easier to identify. More often than not, it was about what wasn’t in the dish—such as fat, sugar, sodium or carbs—rather than what was.
“If you asked a consumer what healthy meant to them during that time, the predominant answer was something relating to weight management,” says Li.
Today is a much different story, with diners caring not only about the ingredients in the food they’re eating, but also how those ingredients actually got to their plates.
“Healthy 2.0 kicked off in 2004, and is still going strong today,” says Li. “It was headlined by local, organic and natural but has since expanded to other healthy-halo concepts including sustainable, animal welfare and several things that have nothing directly to do with nutrition.”
For example, the desire for menu transparency is continuing to gain steam with consumers. “In the past 10 years, people have been looking [closely] at their food, starting with lowering the amount of fats used in cooking and the types of fats used,” says Martin Paine, Executive Chef for St. Louis-based Kent Precision Foods Group and the Mrs. Dash brand. “In the past two to three years, people have been looking at cleaner labels and organic as a menu choice.”
Of course, as consumers’ perception of health continues to change, it stands to reason that operators will have additional angles to consider in the years to come. According to Datassential, the next major wave of health and wellness could focus on functional foods—such as high-protein items—and will likely pick up steam in the next few years.
Balancing health trends with flavor
Offering diners menu items that are smaller in portion size with flavor coming from herbs and spices rather than a heavy use of fat and sodium is a way to give diners healthy eating options without sacrificing on taste, says Paine.
Additionally, as the customization trend and DIY concepts continue to grow, operators who give customers the option of seasoning their own dishes tableside with spices or herbs can offer a shot of flavor without fat or sodium—while delivering a unique experience at the same time.
Paine also predicts that more spices from around the world, including South America and Asia, that give dishes flavor and heat will continue to grow in the foodservice industry. And don’t be surprised if curry starts popping up on more menus in the near future.
Health for all diets
As consumers continue to seek out information about their food, it’s more important than ever for operators to cater to guests with dietary restrictions. For example, the gluten-free trend is inextricably linked with health in the minds of many consumers, and advances in diagnosing food allergies have contributed to the increase in patrons with special requests, says John Coletta, chef/partner at Chicago’s Quartino restaurant.
“Before people would say, ‘I ate something that didn’t agree with me,’” he says. “Now that they know what the ‘disagreement’ is, whether it’s gluten-intolerance or whatever, they can’t ignore it.”
In today’s competitive market, Coletta considers it a no-brainer to not only honor customers’ special requests, but also to anticipate them, too. At his restaurant, Coletta offers his diners an extensive gluten-free menu that includes a gluten-free pasta from Italy made with rice, corn and soy.
Operators would be smart, too, to keep in mind that age plays a role in diners’ preferences and perceptions when it comes to healthy food. Boomers are more likely to care about specific nutritional elements, including calories, sodium and sugar, says Li, while millennials are more likely to respond positively to the Healthy 2.0 messaging of natural, organic, local and sustainable. “There’s no such thing as an archetypical ‘healthy dish’; it’s more about having items that appeal to diners’ different health sensibilities,” he says.
For more tips and ideas on delivering healthy flavor to your customers, visit Mrs. Dash Foodservice here.
This post is sponsored by Mrs. Dash Foodservice