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Functional foods are resonating with diners

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Consumers are pretty well-educated about clean labels, gluten-free options and the value of vegetables in a healthy diet. That’s the baseline for operators in colleges and universities, as well as business and industry, healthcare and even senior living. But diners are continuing to evolve in their never-ending quests to eat healthier, with functional or “healing” foods gaining ground.

So finds Technomic’s recent Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, which reveals that eaters are seeking foods that boost the immune system, increase energy, improve digestion and relieve stress. In fact, 71% of consumers believe that antioxidants make a food healthier, and 75% see protein as beneficial to health.

To menu these trends, Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J, in partnership with its contractor, Chartwells Higher Education, launched a “Foods with High-Powered Benefits” promotion last fall. Signage in the dining halls highlights dishes with antioxidant-rich fruits, anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric and coriander, and dairy foods with probiotics, informing students about which substances promote healthy skin or boost immunities. 

“We have about 100 recipes that fit into the Foods with High-Powered Benefits program, and we’re expanding on it in 2019, developing five times as many,” says Joe Labombarda, corporate executive chef for Chartwells. He worked with Montclair’s chef, Bill Zucosky, to introduce the program at the university.

Pushing protein

“Protein-packed is also what this generation of college students is looking for,” Labombarda adds. Because Chartwells follows the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change guidelines with the goal of reducing red meat consumption, the culinary team is creating more recipes with a plant-protein focus.

“While vegans and vegetarians understand how to combine [the amino acids in] vegetables and grains to make a complete protein, other students need some education,” says Labombarda. Montclair State offers up items such as a black bean and tofu burrito, a “crab” cake made with hearts of palm, and quinoa and corn salad, educating students through signage and teaching kitchens.

“Protein-packed is also what this generation of college students is looking for.” —Joe Labombarda

Rob Morasco, senior director for culinary development for Sodexo North America, is also putting more plant protein on the plate, menuing naturally vegetable-forward ethnic dishes and better-tasting meat alternatives. “Innovation in analog technology has really improved the flavor and texture of these protein substitutes,” he says.

In addition to plant-based burgers, “we are using beer-battered fish fillets that contain no fish and nondairy cheeses that actually melt,” he says.  

In the C&U accounts that Sodexo manages, 60% of the menu is plant-based or plant-forward. The contract feeder’s B&I clients are close behind, he says. While many menu items combine grains and veggies to make a complete protein, others are purely vegetable, prepared to mimic meat. Carrot osso buco and “tuna” sashimi made from thinly sliced tomatoes “deliver the same texture and mouthfeel of animal protein,” Morasco says. Plus, dishes containing vegetables are perceived as healthier by 84% of consumers, according to the Technomic Healthy Eating report.

A healthier ratio

Sodexo has also created a proprietary meat-mushroom blend that is making big inroads in healthcare, Morasco says. “We couldn’t put burgers on certain patient menus before, but these fit the restrictions,” he says. Instead of getting too clinical with fat and sodium figures, however, the burgers are simply described as “better for you.”

“We have more folks coming in who are flexitarians, plus a very vocal minority that is pushing more plants.” —Eric Eisenberg 

Senior living menus have traditionally been more meat-and-potatoes focused, but that’s changing with the influx of baby boomers, says Eric Eisenberg, director of dining at Rogue Valley Manor retirement community in Oregon. “We have more folks coming in who are flexitarians, plus a very vocal minority that is pushing more plants,” he says.

Eisenberg is offering more plant-forward options for guests in independent living who want to “amend” their diets. “We don’t shove seitan, tofu or tempeh into a dish, but we are focusing on vegetables and grains that tie into the ethnic theme of the day,” he says. One Sunday, for example, the buffet featured an Indian theme, so he added curry-roasted cauliflower, paneer tikka masala, basmati rice and red lentils to the lineup, along with the chicken and beef selections.

“We’re not trying to educate people who don’t want to be educated. Many of our residents are over 80,” Eisenberg says. “But we want to offer more protein choices than a slab of roast beef.”

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