Stealth health takes back seat to menu transparency

Diners’ demand for clean, whole ingredients has driven stealth health from menus.

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"I never believed in transparency,” says Drew Patterson, culinary director at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “I was always the naysayer, preferring to stick with the stealth health approach.”

But a few years ago, “We started to see this enormous shift in people being driven more toward healthier options,” he says. “Our consumers are more educated. People are starting to care about what they are putting in their bodies, and we are starting to see a major shift toward transparency.”

According to Technomic’s Consumer Food Trends Report, as the definition of healthy continues to evolve, consumers are demanding transparency across foodservice channels to discern whether a meal fits their own definition. This trend is not limited to nutrition facts; consumers also are looking for sourcing information and prefer open kitchens, Technomic finds.

Patterson is embracing transparency in concepts he developed in Wexner’s niche hospitals. At the Bloch Cafe, a retail outlet in the James Cancer Center, a digital menu highlights the top 25 cancer-fighting foods being used in research, and guests have access to educational  pamphlets. “It’s not advertised as a cancer space for survivors and patients. It’s just a cafe using fresh berries and cruciferous veggies,” says Patterson. But he cautions that it’s important to make sure the eateries don’t turn into schools. “Someone may just want a smoothie or a nice meal,” he says. “You don’t want to alienate people, but we also try to provide some takeaways.”

Stealth health even is taking a bit of a back seat in the K-12 segment, an area where it’s typically been quite strong. Rather than camouflage healthy ingredients, dietitian Cameron Wells, who works with students at D.C. Public Schools alongside foodservice provider DC Central Kitchen, tries to make them more fun, connecting vegetables with engaging names. For example, pasta with marinara and chickpeas is known as “Powered- Up Pasta.” She also hosts hands-on taste tests and recipe development workshops as part of the curriculum.

“The kids have the opportunity to look at a chickpea and taste it whole,” she says. “And then we make a hummus, and they can try it and see if it’s their thing.” It’s a holistic approach that engages youngsters and nurtures healthy eating habits.

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