Foods with function and flavor

Why foods with a boost are jumping onto diners’ plates.

quinoa bowl

In a time of growing health consciousness, it might not be enough anymore for food to be merely filling. According to Technomic’s 2016 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, diners are looking for food with a function, such as those with high protein content, immunity-boosting properties, antioxidants, probiotics and more. The data suggests 63% of consumers see these foods as healthier than those without any specific nutritional function—and would be more likely to buy them.

But are those stated preferences translating on an operational level? There, the answer is less clear. Baby boomers entering senior living are more interested in healthy foods than older residents, says Michael Christner, corporate executive chef for Erickson Living in Cantonsville, Md. They’re more likely to look for supergrains like quinoa and freekeh.

Yet even boomers aren’t asking for supplements or foods just because they aid digestion or alertness. “Our residents aren’t going to look for a protein bar,” Christner says. Instead, Erickson offers a holistic approach, eschewing processed goods in favor of whole foods. Snacks are not protein bars, but fruit, vegetables, nuts and berries. If residents do ask for dishes high in amino acids, chefs will serve trout. But they don’t label or sell it as such.

Saint Louis University in Missouri also follows a whole-foods philosophy—but it does provide some limited labeling of functional foods. Nutrition coordinator Amye O’Neal says the program uses a variety of symbols highlighting nutritional values of menu items, including tags such as vegetarian, vegan, whole grains, good source of calcium and antioxidants. In one of SLU’s dining halls, the symbols are displayed on digital menu screens so diners can seek out the corresponding nutritional items.

While neither operator has had requests for the ultimate in functional foods—Silicon Valley’s meal replacement product—O’Neal says she can see the potential allure for students, who are already short on time. “Students live on coffee,” she says. Ultimately, she says, the success of functional food will depend on marketing.

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