Giving indulgent items a healthier spin

Offering guests the foods they crave while being mindful of health is a balancing act for operators across segments—but it’s especially important for noncommercial operators, many of whom serve the same patrons each day.

healthy bowl

However, it’s possible to give even indulgent foods, such as burgers, pizza and desserts, a better-for-you halo. Jumping on the clean-label trend that has been surging in the food manufacturing and restaurant industries, including some of the nation’s largest brands, can be a way to do this. Many consumers perceive foods with clean labels—ingredient statements that are simple, brief and free of artificial substances—as healthier than foods that are processed and full of scientific-sounding ingredients.

For consumers with this mindset, eating clean foods is more important than counting calories. The NPD Group noted last year that dieting among Americans has declined over the last decade and that “health to consumers now is more about the purity of the foods they eat.”

Operators who menu all-natural or low-sodium burgers, pizza made with preservative-free dough or ice cream made with organic cream may attract clean eaters. A halo also hovers over foods and beverages with attributes that are deemed socially or environmentally responsible, such as fair-trade coffee or cage-free eggs.

Forward-looking restaurants and noncommercial operations are modeling this approach. For instance, Shake Shack stakes its clean-menu positioning on all-natural burgers with no hormones and no antibiotics ever. Mixt invites guests to design their own salads or grain bowls from a list of clean ingredients that includes organic greens and grains and free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free proteins. 

“We are hearing regularly from our clients that they want healthier and more responsibly sourced products,” says Van Sullivan, director of residential dining at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The Baby Berk food truck on the UMass campus features all-natural beef burgers with nitrate-free bacon.

The notions of clean eating and menu transparency are finding their way into the healthcare segment, too. There are multiple examples at the Shorenstein Family Café, which serves patients, visitors and staff at University of California San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay, San Francisco. For instance, the scrambled eggs at breakfast are cage free. At lunch, a grilled chicken sandwich features antibiotic-free chicken breast and a tuna melt touts sustainable, wild-caught tuna. Both are served on organic, whole-wheat buns from a local bakery.  

Another way operators can give traditionally indulgent foods a healthier twist is to emphasize protein, which a growing number of consumers seek out on menus. Starbucks Coffee offers the Protein Bistro Box, a snack assortment that includes a hard-boiled, cage-free egg, cheddar cheese, multigrain bread and peanut butter. Protein Bar and Kitchen, a Chicago-based fast-casual chain, proclaims a core belief on its website that “good protein is a daily essential for health.” Its salads, wraps, bowls and “bar-ritos” are offered with a choice of protein-rich toppings such as all-natural, hormone-free beef or chicken or roasted tofu.

Yet another avenue to healthier items is retooling recipes with better-for-you ingredients—while keeping flavor paramount. Sodexo, the Gaithersburg, Md.-based foodservice management company, did that with The Blend burger it launched in K-12 school accounts last year in a partnership with the Mushroom Council. The burger features a mix of beef and mushrooms that reduces overall fat and calories. In a pilot test of the item, 85 percent of students preferred the taste of the healthier burger to a conventional one, Sodexo reported.

This post is sponsored by AdvancePierre® Foods