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The Marriage of Health and Flavor

The Marriage of Health and Flavor

Donna Shields

OPTIONS: Increasingly, customers are searching for healthful menu items. Are you meeting that need?

Health-conscious consumers are either focused on weight loss or quality nutrition. It's time to get into your customers' heads.

We've all heard the diet buzzwords— Atkins, South Beach, The Zone, macrobiotic, vegan, high fiber, low fat, low carb, high protein, sugar free, whole grain. The list goes on and on. And yet, there is troubling news about the state of Americans' waistlines.

As newly published Boston University research concludes, obesity is a greater problem than was originally thought. One of the recommendations drawn from this study is that if Americans want to avoid eventually becoming overweight, they must continually work at maintaining a healthy, fit lifestyle. That being said, it can be challenging for restaurant operators to keep up with America's everchanging palate and our desire to be well while winning the battle with the bulge.

What influences dining choices?
An innovative research study conducted by The Coca-Cola Company measured consumers' motives when making food and beverage selections. It determined how and when health and wellness concerns affected these decisions.

Respondents consisted of 1,600 people who ate at one or more of 36 designated restaurants within the past month. The study found that restaurant choices were determined by occasion type, food variety, healthy choices, cleanliness, treat/indulgence, convenience and taste.

Seven "need states" were identified in the study. At any dining occasion, consumers may be in any one of them depending on what key dimensions are driving them at that time. However, when focused on health and wellness, consumers typically fall within one of the following categories— affordable dieting on-the-run, "better-for-you" diet watchers or fresh, high-quality health.

Affordable dieting on-the-run consumers are looking for affordability, speed and consistency and a place that kids and teens enjoy.

Consumers in this group want healthy alternatives, including a wide variety of salad options. They may request the nutritional value of the menu items.

Better-for-you diet watchers are looking for fresh, healthy food and beverage choices that make it easy to stick with a diet. They want flavorful menu items that are nutritionally balanced. Fresh, high-quality health customers seek a restaurant with a nice atmosphere and a knowledgeable, well-groomed staff. Good service and clean facilities are also critical. Consumers in this group are looking for "made-from-scratch" preparation and flavors that are fresh, not processed.

Better-for-you consumers also want a variety of healthy food choices that are not fried, oily or greasy and are made from high-quality ingredients, which balance taste with being good for you. These consumers enjoy food that they would not normally make at home.

Diet as a verb
It's important for operators to keep in mind that health-conscious consumers look at diet in two different ways. Those who use diet as a verb tend to be more focused on weight loss, but those who use it as a noun tend to be more wellness oriented. These two distinct consumer market segments— those who are weight conscious and those who seek quality nutrition and a pleasurable dining experience—were found to drive the diet and wellness arena.

It is not surprising that parents who are weight conscious feel that restaurants fall short on healthy menu items with kid appeal. Some operators are recognizing this gap and providing kid-friendly alternatives.

Those desiring quality nutrition and pleasurable dining have a more holistic approach to the dining experience and seek out restaurants that have attributes such as ambiance, excellent service and fresh, high-quality food.

Staff knowledge also adds to the healthy restaurant experience. Guests want to know how the food is prepared and what the ingredients are. If a server can communicate this information and engage the customer, then that customer is more likely to have a positive experience and return to the restaurant.

The research also found that consumers associate different restaurant brands with different need states. Therefore, operators really need to know who their customers are and what their brand is to determine if a need for health-conscious fare exists. If so, is it wellness, weight management or both that need to be addressed?

Consumers who want quality nutrition and a pleasurable dining experience also believe that fresh food equals healthier, higher-quality food. They want to balance health benefits with taste and flavor and desire unique choices including items not made at home or better than when made at home.

Tempt the senses
There are a few things that restaurants can offer and communicate to their guests that will further their menu's health and wellness appeal.

Many wellness-oriented customers seek out specific, authentic ethnic flavors. No longer are broad categories of ethnic cuisine acceptable. Instead of Caribbean food, they want Jamaican, Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican cuisine. More authentic ingredients and preparation bring a halo effect to the dish and equate to "wholesomeness" in the eyes of the customer.

When serving these types of regional cuisines, use authentic food preparation techniques and menu descriptions. Use words like "braised," " panseared," "hickory-smoked" and "caramelized" to provide strong sensory appeal even before the meal is served.

There are a number of food themes and sensory profiles— including flavor contrasts like sweet and spicy, sweet and tart, and sweet and salty—that deliver a healthier perception. A fruit-based sauce with Latin spices is the epitome of sweet and spicy; an apple, horseradish and onion compote exemplifies sweet and tart; and a raisin and caper topping embodies sweet and salty.

Entrèes like pecan-encrusted baked trout provide crunchy and soft texture contrasts. A final way to stimulate the senses is to offer items with contrasting temperatures such as grilled meat or fish on chilled leafy greens or hot fudge sauce on low fat vanilla ice cream.

Focus on health, but allow for taste indulgence. Deliver big flavors in moderate portions that require less fat, sweeteners and salt.

Even people who are careful about what they eat will have the occasional splurge because they've been "good" all week. It's all about moderation.

Diet and wellness are also at the forefront in beverage trends. As many consumers are "drinking on a diet," it is not surprising that bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage business in the United States.

Eating out is a treat. There is no silver bullet solution to addressing diet, health and wellness for all operators. The type of restaurant, brand and customer base will determine what healthy food and beverage choices should be offered. It is not only about health and wellness of the body; it is about health and wellness of the mind, body and spirit.

Donna Shields, M.S., R.D. Nutrition, has been a heatlh and culinary consultant for more than two decades. Working with food manufacturers, the foodservice industry and trade associations to promote optimum health through diet and lifestyle, Shields translates progressive nutrition science into delicious-tasting food and drink.