As restaurants make nutrition part of their menu-development process, they looked for advice, ideas, innovations and ingredients at the NRA Show. The four-day show featured a dozen education sessions on health and nutrition and hundreds of exhibiting companies with healthful options.
Among the popular sessions: “The Current State of Nutrition in the Restaurant Industry,” featuring executives from Darden, McDonald’s and Yum Brands, and “Nutrition Trends on the Menu.” In the latter, author Carolyn O’Neil and food strategist Janet Helm offered tips to satisfy consumer demand for healthful options.
Here are some of the trends operators are exploring:
A need for gluten-free options brings Ben Breslauer to the Organic & Natural Pavilion, where he visits Smart Flour Foods. Breslauer, executive chef, The Club at Crested Butte, Colorado, says he’s trying to design menu items for guests who have “hopped on the gluten-free bandwagon.” Austin, Texas-based Smart Flour uses only ancient grains for its pizza crust: sorghum, amaranth and teff, which elevates its taste, texture and nutrition profile, says Charlie Pace. “A lot of consumers aren’t gluten-free, but they want multi-grain products,” he says. “Tastes great,” Breslauer says.
“There’s a high understanding of whole grains by consumers,” says David Schmidt, president and CEO, International Food Information Council. Steve Hilton, vice president, global government and public affairs, McDonald’s, notes the chain’s eight-grain breakfast muffins and oatmeal. “We’re working on it,” he says.
On the Show floor, operators ask Cathy Nehl of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods how to use its gluten-free baking mixes, whole-grain flour and hot cereal and other products. They want recipe ideas and information on how to use the products for breakfast, lunch and dinner, she says. "More people are interested in offering them, and more channels of distribution are available than in past years,” she says.
Since opening the Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich in 1998 in Greenwich Village, Lee Zalben has become known as an expert on peanut butter. So now he supplies peanut products, including peanut flour, to fellow restaurateurs. The flour adds protein and flavor without as many calories as peanut butter because the oil is pressed out, he says from his booth at the NRA Show. “It’s not for every application,” he says. “What we’re showing are examples of innovative ideas for people interested in peanuts.”
Meat alternatives are more acceptable than they’ve been in decades, says Steve Zimmerman, vice president, sales, foodservice, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods. “Big concepts that you wouldn’t think were interested in healthy, vegan or vegetarian food are adding meatless items to the menu,” he says.
“We’re seeing growing interest from people who want to eat meatless,” Cheryl Dolven, director, health and wellness, Darden, says. Some want to know whether the restaurants uses animal rennet in the cheese. Others aren’t as strict. But having meatless items “helps you avoid the veto vote.”
“People want to know specifics about what’s in their food,” Helm says. “Clean eating is the new buzzword: minimally processed and ingredient-centric.” That’s the thought behind 78 Red Ketchup, says founder Amir Bavani. He believes ketchup should be all about the tomato, so he slashed the sodium count and eliminated potato starch and corn syrup. Tomatoes represent 78 percent of the ingredients, thus the name. “Ketchup is overlooked, but it’s used every day, especially by kids,” he says. Likewise, Jennifer Connor, the Mustard Girl, says her condiment is GMO and gluten-free, low-sodium and kosher with little sugar. Says O’Neil: “The more information people have about their food, the more it empowers them.”
What’s something the restaurant industry could do to make the biggest health impact with consumers? Cut the salt, and add more fruit and vegetables, says CSPI’s Michael Jacobsen. ”Those are exactly the things we’re working on,” McDonald’s Hilton says. The company is working with its suppliers to make fruit, vegetables and dairy more appealing in its restaurants, he says.