What is 'clean' eating, anyway?

At FoodService Director’s MenuDirections conference in February, nutrition expert Dr. James E. Painter shared a hilarious—and yet somewhat disheartening—video clip from  “Jimmy Kimmel Live” during his keynote address, “Fats in vogue, wheat woes and uh-oh GMOs.”

woman salad clean eating

In the clip, an interviewer asks people on the street who claim to maintain a gluten-free diet one simple question: “What is gluten?” Answers range from “I don’t know” to “a grain” to “wheat.” When the interviewer presses one of the passers-by further, asking why she avoids it, she replies, “It makes you fat.”

Whether for legitimate health reasons or because a friend got them into it, many consumers continue to gravite to a gluten-free diet. And noncommercial operators are feeling the pressure to menu such options in greater supply: According to FSD magazine’s research, 61 percent of FSDs in senior living facilities, 50 percent of hospital operators and 87 percent of college and university operators expect gluen-free items to increase on their menus in the next couple years. This month’s cover story  explores the challenges operators face in sourcing gluten free and other “clean” food.

The “clean” halo doesn’t just apply to the captive audiences served by noncommercial foodservice, however. According to the 2016 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, major chains such as Panera Bread and Pizza Hut responded to consumer demand for dishes made with real (not processed) ingredients when they dine out by removing additives from their menus in the past year.

In January, Panera introduced its “Clean” Soup Menu after two years in development. The rotating menu includes 10 soups free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. Pizza Hut rolled out certified gluten-free pizzas (cheese or pepperoni only) at more than 2,800 of its locations last year.

The reason for these efforts is not just to avoid veto votes from customers with celiac disease. As Technomic points out in its report (and the Kimmel clip suggests), the consumer definition of health in general is swinging toward clean eating and clean labeling. It’s less about whether something is low-calorie or whether it’s even truly good for you. Nowadays, consumers equate health with wholesome—real ingredients, food sourced from nearby farms, from animals raised responsibly and so on.

And it doesn’t much matter if they know what gluten is or what GMOs do or how much organic ingredients cost. Perception (and even misperception, it seems)  indeed is reality.



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