Clean labels make their way to C&U foodservice

college students clean label
Photograph: Shutterstock

From Furmano’s.

As consumer preferences and definitions of what healthy eating means change, so do foodservice menus—and colleges are no exception. According to Technomic’s 2018 Healthy Eating report, 40% of consumers say their definitions of health have changed over the past two years, with some citing a shifting focus to eating a balanced diet rather than trying to eat sugar- or fat-free options. Some diners also say they are trying to be more aware of nutrients and vitamins, while others are looking for whole-grain and enriched options.

One of the biggest trends in foodservice continues to be a focus on cleaner, healthier eating.  In fact, Technomic’s Healthy Eating report finds that 67% of consumers say that when they want to order healthy items, they look for claims of natural ingredients on menus. Within the colleges and university foodservice segment, where students are making their own food decisions for the first time, their preferences are also for healthier options and more natural ingredients. Technomic’s 2017 College & University report finds that one way to encourage more students to purchase a meal plan is by offering healthier options—28% of students say so.

What students want

Healthier options don’t just mean salad bars, of course. College diners want unique and delicious options, too. Technomic’s College & University report finds that 46% of students say they would like their school to offer more unique foods and beverages, while 43% say they want more ethnic foods and beverages. And they want transparency, too—71% say they prefer for nutritional information to be listed on the menu/menu board.

As for what nutritional attributes they’re after, 57% of students say they would be more likely to purchase foods that are high in protein, 48% say they’d be likely to order low-sodium options and 43% are interested in foods free of high-fructose corn syrup.

How colleges are keeping up

Universities all over the country are revamping menus to ensure they’re meeting diners’ needs.

At University of Massachusetts - Amherst, Ken Toong, the executive director of auxiliary enterprises, is mindful of both clean label and healthy eating trends and is dedicated to providing wholesome alternatives for students. The school’s foodservice program currently has two dieticians on staff, in fact.

“Every food we serve, we want to be healthy for our students with proper labeling,” says Toong. He notes the school’s dedication for transparency, focusing on things like labeling for vegetarian options as well as which foods contain certain allergens like tree nuts or gluten, as well as ensuring foods are free from ingredients such nitrates and MSG.

Food choices are a serious matter at UM – Amherst, since there are approximately 23,500 people utilizing the school’s meal plan, and because the campus serves over 6.5 million meals per year. “Our students enjoy the transparency and clear labeling,” Toong says. The school takes surveys twice a year to get an idea of what students want to eat as well as how satisfied they are with the program, and in addition to clean ingredients, he says that the overall goal is to offer healthy, delicious foods. 

UM - Amherst isn’t alone, either. At Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., the college’s cafe team cooks food from scratch and doesn’t use ingredients that include MSG or preservatives. The college also sources some food from local farms. At the University of California - Davis, cafeterias cater to numerous special diet needs, including vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. And at the University of North Florida, nutrition is one of the top health concerns on campus—the school created its Healthy Osprey Eat Well campaign, a program that promotes good eating habits and a wholesome diet, provides students access to a registered dietician and offers other programs and additional resources that help students stay healthy and get fit.

For college and university foodservice operators, the trend of students and diners wanting more clean and healthy options isn’t going anywhere. Be sure to call out instances of clean foods on menus as well as on the cafeteria signage to ensure diners know what they’re eating. Increased efforts to offer these options can translate to increased participation in meal plans

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