Third-party certification improves healthy option consumption at UMass

Published in FSD Update

UMass partnered with SPE for its third-party healthy certification.

Creating a restaurant-quality experience has long been a goal for dining services at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. So when the idea to bring in a third party to validate the department’s healthy options arose, Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining, says it was a no-brainer to partner with an organization that does just that for Michelin-star restaurants. The company, SPE Certified, stands for Sanitas Per Escam (or “Health Through Food” in Latin).

Nuts and bolts: The program markets healthy meals on the main line in the university’s dining halls as SPE Certified. SPE’s criteria include foods that “promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables, promote high quality fats and reduce saturated fat, ensure nutrient density, limit processed ingredients and enhance food’s intrinsic nutritional properties,” according to the company’s website. The certification also takes sustainability measures into account. Dianne Sutherland, R.D., UMass dining dietitian, says the department submitted more than 200 recipes to SPE to see if they met the company’s nutritional requirements.

“About 40% of the recipes just needed small tweaks and another 50% needed modification based on ingredients or the dish’s method of preparation,” Sutherland says. “The other 10% did not meet their criteria at all. We tweaked the recipes and sent [SPE] the nutrient analysis and they put the meal combinations together. Then we implemented those combinations on our base menu so there would be one SPE Certified meal at every breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Challenges: DiStefano says the biggest challenge was adapting what was designed as a restaurant program into one that would work for an all-you-care-to-eat environment.

“We needed to educate the students so they’d choose the correct composed meal,” DiStefano says. “To do that, we’d promote the daily item to the students through social media and posters and banners before they got to the dining hall. The second phase was to have service staff out [on the line] to answer questions, along with posters that explained why these meal combinations work and why eating healthy is important.”

DiStefano says the department’s promotional approach to the program eventually resulted in students consistently choosing the SPE Certified meal over other meals on the main line. 

“We noticed that the students who were educated on the SPE items chose it even though it only counted for a third of what we were offering on the main line—those meals counted for 60% of what was consumed,” DiStefano says. “It taught us that if students are educated on healthier options, the food item tastes good and we can execute in serving it consistently, then students will routinely come back. Furthermore, we found that students weren’t just cherry-picking. The students were choosing to go to the main line and when they were there, they chose the SPE meal 2-to-1 over the other options on that line.”