Compass Group North America has been one of the leading contract companies in promoting healthful eating to its clients. Its most recent effort, “whole + sum”, has been very successful, and earned a “Goldies” award this year from FoodService Director and the Culinary Institute of America for best practices in health and wellness. We spoke with Deanne Brandstetter, R.D., vice president of nutrition and wellness for Compass, about that program, as well as her general thoughts on the state of healthy eating in non-commercial foodservice.
How effective do you think Compass Group’s “whole + sum” program has been in re-orienting the attitudes of your company’s customers?
We are seeing really great results. I think it’s been quite effective with all populations. We’ve been quite surprised in one way because we thought, going in, that it would be very popular in white-collar environments. What we’ve found is that some of the most popular locations have been our blue-collar manufacturing locations. It’s a station-based concept, so we took away their hot entrée station, and yet we saw participation increase by as much as 20%. I think there were a couple of key things for that. First, the health messages were very subtle, and they were focused on having energy, being productive, looking good and feeling good, rather than preventing disease or losing weight. Also, it is focused on choice, putting together a customized meal. That’s what people are focused on these days. They want to customize, they want to have choice, They don’t want to be handed the healthy plate of the day.
Given the success of whole + sum, do you think Americans are finally beginning to “walk the talk” when it comes to health?
Our clients are definitely committed. When we look at the general public I think it’s a mixed bag, and that’s pretty much what we see with the restaurant industry in general. We’re definitely seeing some shift in actual behavior. It’s more pronounced with women and late Baby Boomers, The other population where we seeing people making big changes are parents, and they’re doing it because our their children, not for themselves. Some of the statistics we’ve seen are very heartening. For instance, Applebee’s has had an 11% increase in their sales of healthy entrees. The success of KFC’s grilled chicken is also an indicator. The more success stories like that, the more restaurants will be willing to put more healthy items on the menu.
What do you believe is the single biggest nutrition problem facing Americans today?
I would say people are not looking at their diet holistically, from a plate standpoint. If you look back over the last couple of years, we’ve focused on nutrients—trans fats, carbs, sodium, saturated fats—and we’ve put the emphasis on cutting out those, without looking at the whole plate. I have to applaud the USDA for its new My Plate graphic. It does a pretty good job of depicting what a holistic diet should look like. I think if everyone followed the My Plate graphic, and every time they sat down to eat their plate looked like that, with half the plate vegetables, that would solve a lot of the problems we have. For example, if you make half your plate vegetables it’s going to be very hard to overdo it with saturated fats. Is My Plate simplistic? Yes. But I think it’s where we needed to go.
“Stealth health” is a practice endorsed by a number of operators these days. Do you think Americans can be “tricked” into eating more healthfully?
There is a place for it and I think there is a place where it’s not wise to use it. Certainly it can work with key items that trigger a really negative perception in customers, as in ‘we’re taking this out’ or ‘we’re taking this away’, where it really doesn’t have much effect on taste perception. A perfect example of this is trans fats. People did not miss trans fats when we took them out of different foods. It benefited everyone tremendously. The same is true with our efforts to reduce sodium. As soon as we call something low-sodium, it’s like the kiss of death. But if you do it correctly, you can benefit people and they won’t notice the difference. But some of the time stealth health is not good, like trying to sneak vegetables into meatloaf. Because of truth in menuing laws we can’t, for example, call something meatloaf if it’s 50% zucchini. But beyond that, we need to be transparent in terms of how we menu things. We don’t want to mislead customers.
What can foodservice operators and restaurateurs do that they are not doing now to encourage Americans to eat more healthfully?
First, we need to make sure that we are working with our vendor partners and telling them what we need from a reformulated ingredient standpoint. Second, in terms of providing incentives to encourage our customers to eat more healthfully, we need to look at the growing field of behavioral economics and consumer behavior. People always give price as one of the parameters [for choosing healthy foods]. So how can we manipulate pricing to profitably promote healthy eating? The third thing is simply to not give up. There are a lot of operators who have said, ‘I tried this; it didn’t work.’ Times are changing. We have to keep trying new things, and at the same time revisit things we’ve tried before to see if they can work now.