A better balance

30 March 2006
A better balance

TEXT: There have never been more health-conscious times than those we live in today. Whether it's Government ad campaigns or the backs of cereal packets, nutritional messages surround us, and from food service to fine dining, no part of the catering sector can ignore the massive, yet still growing, public awareness of what we eat.

Whether it's lunch at work or a special occasion, eating with an eye on nutrition is firmly established, so how are caterers responding?

In general, there are two ways the drive toward healthy eating is manifested in catering businesses: changes in what is served, and changes in how we communicate that to the customer. Organisations that provide catering services in education and healthcare are perhaps furthest advanced in both regards, not least because these are sectors in which wellbeing is an obvious concern and Government-imposed guidelines are in force.

For example, lunchtime sales have grown significantly at West Monmouth School in Pontypool, south Wales, since catering manager Maria Stone introduced hot pasta take-away meals as a healthy option for the school's 1,150 pupils. Supplier Pasta King provides the school with finished sauces and pasta, along with a bar unit that can heat the pasta quickly at the point of purchase. The sauces are devised with the goal of providing a nutritional meal and are both GM-free and nut-free.

"One of the difficulties in introducing new food options is making sure it appeals to the kids as well as being quick and easy to serve," says Stone. "While it's a safe bet that most kids like pasta, it can be quite difficult to prepare large quantities and still maintain a just-cooked, fresh taste, but the unit makes it possible to serve a complete meal as soon as it's ready. And, with many pupils participating in extra-curricular activities at lunchtime, they enjoy the flexibility of a take-away option."

For Jenny Collins, Sodexho's marketing director, UK and Ireland, signposting is an important tool in the drive to healthy eating. "What might vary at the local level is how we execute that," she says. "With seven-year-olds, your approach is going to be different than with 40-year-olds."

Providing choices

She explains: "With kids, we provide colour-coded ways of highlighting different kinds of foods, so they can make sure they're getting a balance. With adults, it's a case of providing choices rather than presenting a diet. For example, we provide undressed salads, and the customer is able to select a dressing."

Last summer Sodexho rolled out its Healthwise scheme to all its businesses, which provide catering facilities at some 2,300 sites across the UK. The programme entails working to develop and educate its kitchen teams - for example, leaving salt out of soups and main courses, and encouraging them to find other forms of seasoning, such as herbs. Healthwise is also about communication with the consumer, highlighting the benefits of certain fruits and vegetables at the point of sale or on menu boards. Cards explaining the benefits of carrot and coriander soup are one example.

Clear labelling to allow informed choice is becoming ever more common. Supplier 3663 has instituted its Positive Steps campaign, which has seen the company revamp its product offering to provide foods that fit with a healthier diet. Over the past 12 months 3663 has introduced more than 300 new fruit and vegetable products and 190 fresh meat items. At the same time, recipes have been redeveloped so they are lower in salt, sugar and fat. In the company's own-brand products, "low fat" means less than 3g fat per 100g, "low sugar" is less than 5g per 100g and "low salt" is less than 0.04g sodium per 100g.

Des Bell, director of marketing, says: "All our customers benefit from labelling which includes clear, recognisable logos to indicate ‘no added sugar', ‘five a day', ‘less than 5% fat', ‘low fat' and ‘low salt'. We've seen a decline in demand for our processed product range, and are monitoring the take-up of new and improved products."

The demand for lower levels of additives in food products would appear to be growing. The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital produces meals for about 720 patients daily and operates a 250-seat restaurant providing a lunchtime menu for hospital visitors and staff, so it's important that it be as time-efficient as possible.

Associate catering manager Ron Hedicker uses stock bases in his kitchen and felt it important to source a low-salt product. He settled on those from Major International, which have less than 0.5g of salt per 100ml. He uses these in the preparation of dishes such as braised lamb in cider with parsley dumplings, and communicates the nutritional benefits of dishes to patients by way of a key indicating high-energy, diabetic, low-potassium, low-salt and healthy-eating options.

In sectors where people are primarily eating for pleasure, labelling is still important. This is one effect the healthy eating revolution has had on pub food, says Jason Danciger, director of food with the Laurel Pub Company.

"There's been massive growth in healthier foods, but there's still great demand for comfort foods such as burgers and chips," says Danciger. "So on menus you have to offer that kind of dish as well as healthier options. Nowadays we say what is in a menu item more than we used to. There used to be quirky one-line descriptions of things, but now it's more factual."

comfort food

In hotels, guests may spend a week at a time away from home on business, so healthy options have to coexist with comfort food there, too.

Heather Thornton, director of sales and marketing at the Best Western Yew Lodge hotel near East Midlands Airport, has noticed contradictory demands from customers. Some people worry about eating highly calorific meals every evening, while there is demand from others for traditional dishes.

"People need healthier options when travelling for business," she says. "We have business people who stay from Monday to Thursday, and they don't want to be eating fancy food every night. So we're going back to basics with seasonal, healthy food and including ingredients like leaves, beans and lentils in dishes."

She adds: "Other things we're doing are substituting sweet potato and carrot mash for mashed potato, and putting fish on the menu. Also, we are chargrilling and steaming foods more, and not necessarily covering things with sauces but allowing the customer to choose whether they want it."

However, says Thornton, there's also "Mr Average Business Traveller", who likes old-fashioned favourites such as sausage and mash and shepherd's pie. Her response has been to make such dishes with quality seasonal and local ingredients.

In fact, the healthy-eating trend has seeped into our lives a lot more than we might imagine. Even in fine dining, things have changed, says Robert Thompson, head chef at the Michelin-starred Winteringham Fields in north Lincolnshire.

"There's a definite trend towards making things lighter," says Thompson. "We're using a lot more herbs, olive oils, vinaigrettes and dressings, while our use of cream and butter is dropping. Nowadays, if you run out of cream, it's not the big deal it once was; and there was a time you would have found a roux as the basis for nearly every sauce, but now that's not the case."

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