How to menu health without getting preachy

A new University of Illinois study finds diners largely ignore nutrition labels.

Published in FSD Update

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

lubys salad bar

While mandated posting of nutritional data hasn’t hit noncommercial operations yet, researchers at the University of Illinois wondered whether college diners would even use the information. The results of their study, published last week in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: a resounding no.

Labels were placed directly in front of foods in two dining halls and on sneeze guards in two more, and students were surveyed about their usage during a 12-week period. About 46% of respondents reported they were aware of the nutrition labels on the day they were surveyed, and about 20% actually used them. But the most striking number may be the 61% of non-users who said they “didn’t care” about the information.

“People don't always know what to do with the information [on labels],” UI food economist Brenna Ellison, who ran the study, told the Urbana News-Gazette. Here are a few ways FSDs can make healthy eating easier without alienating those diners who aren’t enthused about nutrition.

Market with your audience in mind

Bright displays at K-12 salad bars already are popular, and a new study from Pediatrics has proven their efficacy in getting students to take their veggies. In the study, 10 elementary schools displayed either banners or TV cartoons of “super-powered” vegetable heroes, a combination of the two or neither. In schools decorated with the banners alone, 90.5% more students took vegetables, and where both banners and TV ads were used, the number of students taking vegetables increased by 239.2%, the New York Times reports. “Schools are left to do their own marketing, and that’s not cost effective,” David Just, a Cornell professor and one of the study's authors, told the Times. “These need to be national programs. McDonald’s is effective because you see their marketing everywhere.”

Turn health into an experience

To broaden its salad bar offerings but keep food costs in line, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., plans to outfit one of its bars with a grill, referred to as a “sizzle station,” says Director of Culinary Excellence Ron DeSantis. By staffing that station with a chef, the school’s foodservice can keep tabs on portion control, providing upscale protein options such as shrimp, but ensuring students take appropriate helpings. 

At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., the Harvest dining hall was created with customization in mind. Diners make selections from an ingredient bar, then visit a Mongolian grill, a salad bar or a broth bar, among other areas, for the finishing touches. “It’s difficult to serve healthy food to people who are really not educated about it,” says Nick Emanuel, dining services director of operations. “They don’t know how interesting it could be. So when it came to the design, it had to be the ‘wow’ factor right when you walk in.”

Bank on trending international flavors

Keeping both health and comfort foods in mind, Director of Culinary Services for Sodexo Chuck Hatfield developed Indian stuffed potatoes, with toasted spices, jalapeno and cilantro chutney standing in for high-calorie cheese, butter and sour cream. The result: a reverse-engineered samosa that boasts just 320 calories per serving.

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