Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Better-for-you Boosts

Almond meal makes a heart-healthy base for gluten-free Chesapeake crab cakes, developed by chef John Csukor. Photo courtesy of almond board of california. For mindful menu makeovers, operators get a healthy dose of support from commodity boards

By Jennifer Hazard

Consumers’ increasing knowledge of better-for-you eating options, combined with government nutrition-labeling mandates, is leading to more mindful menu development on the part of high-volume and chain restaurants. To help with these efforts, commodity boards and advocacy groups are working with operators via educational conferences, supportive research, creative collaborations and nationwide promotions — all with a continued focus on flavor.

Cindy Harriman, director of food & nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council believes when it comes to menu development for chain restaurants, flavor reigns. “But food doesn’t have to be unhealthy to taste good,” she says.

Harriman is buoyed by the fact that American palates are migrating to the nuttier, fuller flavor of whole grains, and restaurant operators are taking notice. She says McDonald’s Premium Chicken sandwich has always been on a whole-grain bun, but it wasn’t until last year that the chain started to promote whole grains on its packaging.

To help build awareness of the benefits of whole grains, the council recently held Whole Grains Sampling Day, during which operators like McDonald’s, Arby’s and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels offered coupons and special promotions dedicated to their whole-grain menu options.

Harriman says many restaurant operators also benefit from the information provided on the Whole Grain Council’s website, www.wholegrainscouncil.org, which includes recipes, resources and statistics. Harriman believes the council sets the context and provides the support needed to ensure operators’ efforts are successful. “Profits can be found by doing good things to the menu,” she says.

With that idea in mind, Harriman and Advisory Board Chair, chef Michael Holleman, recently talked about the whole-grain options offered in chain restaurants and how best to serve them at the Nutrition Executive Study Group in Portland, Ore. Attendees included dietitians, research and development managers, and quality assurance experts from chains like Domino’s, Dairy Queen, Subway, Wendy’s and more. Based on positive feedback, Harriman believes the conference inspired several quick-service and family-casual restaurants to try whole-grain items on the menu — or add more.

Good Stuff Eatery chef Spike Mendelsohn’s burger proves turkey takes easily to flavor adaptations. His version is loaded with diced apples, celery, onions and mangos and topped with guacamole. Photo courtesy of national turkey federation. ALL-THE-TIME PROTEIN
In response to consumers searching for better options, many fast-food operators are following the philosophy suggested in the popular book Eat This, Not That, by Men’s Health editor David Zinczenko, swapping out high-calorie menu offerings for healthier choices. Sherrie Rosenblatt, vice president of marketing and communications for the National Turkey Federation (NTF), is quick to point out that turkey’s versatility makes it an easy swap for other meats on restaurant menus. “It’s the perfect protein because it can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner,” she says.

Adding the option of turkey burgers to the menu is one way chain restaurants are taking healthy steps. Rosenblatt cites Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s as primary examples. The restaurants worked with the editors at Men’s Health in 2011 to create a charbroiled turkey burger with a variety of savory toppings, including grilled pineapple, green chiles, freshly prepared guacamole and a mushroom sauce. According to Rosenblatt, the heart-healthy burger has attracted new customers to both restaurants. Other chains have followed suit, including Dunkin’ Donuts, whose Better-For-You breakfast menu includes an egg white and turkey sausage breakfast sandwich.

Rosenblatt says turkey appeals to operators because it is a veritable blank canvas with the ability to take on any flavor. Equally important to the bottom line, turkey appeals to both children and adults. “Most people feel comfortable ordering turkey,” she says.

The NTF utilizes its website, www.eatturkey.com,  as a means to educate both operators and consumers on turkey’s benefits. Rosenblatt says one of the most surprising advantages is that skinless turkey provides more protein than most meats.

During National Turkey Month in June, the NTF will also promote the health benefits of ground turkey through a satellite media tour and provide additional information on its website.

When it comes to adding healthy, flavorful options to the menu, Sherry Coleman Collins, registered dietitian for the National Peanut Board (NPB), believes that restaurant chains face their biggest-ever challenge.

“They need to provide food that’s affordable, delicious and nutritious,” she notes. “And it’s got to be an interesting, craveable dish.”

To answer that call, the NPB is promoting the versatility, flavor and health benefits of peanuts, especially when it comes to global cuisine. Raffaela Marie Fenn, NPB’s president and managing director, says more and more chain restaurants are eager to provide new flavors and healthier meals to customers.

In March, the board took part in the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference, presented by Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). At the event, held at the CIA’s Napa Valley campus, the primary discussion was how to create healthy meals that taste incredible. According to NPB marketing leader Bob Coyle, physicians, healthcare providers, nutritionists and others in attendance are all strong supporters of providing restaurants and consumers easy access to good, healthy food.

During the conference, chef, teacher and cookbook author Suvir Saran, who regularly works with the NPB, created healthy dishes that combined a mixture of American and international ingredients — from an Indian Chopped Mixed Salad with peanuts to a Chocolate Peanut Torte with dried fruit.

This balance, says Coyle, is integral to making healthy, flavorful food with broad consumer appeal.

“There has to be a balance between the familiar and the exotic,” he says. “The waitstaff has to be in tune with what they’re offering, and there has to be some storytelling behind the dish.”

The bottom line, says Collins, is that restaurants need to provide food that’s just as healthy as it is flavorful.

“No one can maintain a flavorless diet for the long term,” she says. “If healthy choices taste like cardboard, a person on a diet is not going to be able to maintain it for very long.”

Peanuts are a versatile ingredient in global foods, like this Paneer Piadini with tomato-peanut chutney, watercress and toasted peanut salad, prepared at the CIA’s recent Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference. Photo courtesy of national peanut board. HEART-HEALTHY BOOST
In accordance with its peers, the Almond Board of California (ABC) continues to educate and inspire with on-trend recipes through its collaboration with executive chefs at industry events throughout the year. This year, ABC is partnering with the CIA to host a retreat called “Small Plates with Big Impact,” where chefs from high-volume restaurant chains will discuss challenges in the kitchen, including how to develop healthier menu items.

Almonds garnered special attention last November, when the American Heart Association certified almonds as a heart-healthy food. The certification, which is denoted by a Heart-Check mark on packaged foods, is a trusted nutrition icon for consumers. The hope is consumers can easily identify almonds as a healthy choice, and that this knowledge will translate when ordering at restaurants.

During the recent Research Chefs Association’s Annual Conference & Culinology Expo in March, ABC’s manager of North American ingredient and category marketing, Harbinder Maan, learned that consumer perception is an important part of the movement toward healthier eating, especially when ingredients are described as “natural” or “fresh.” Maan believes the addition of California almonds lets consumers know they’re getting the nutrition they need, whether in a classic Romesco sauce or a gluten-free chocolate dessert.

To further educate operators and chefs, the ABC will continue to fund research used for education at industry events, trade shows and symposia, to showcase the versatility of almonds across varying cuisines.

As a registered dietitian and nutrition research director for the California Raisin Marketing Board (CRMB), James Painter, Ph.D., R.D., attends conferences throughout the country each year, discussing the importance of portion control and how to educate consumers on healthy choices. Painter believes operators are doing everything they can to create healthy, flavorful options. The problem, he insists, is consumers don’t always make good decisions. He cites McDonald’s McLean Burger, introduced in the 1990s, as an example. “McDonald’s made the effort, but no one bought the burger,” he says.

While McDonald’s may not have succeeded with the McLean Burger, its Fruit and Maple Oatmeal has been a winning menu addition. Painter, who travels frequently, says McDonald’s oatmeal is a fast-food option he feels good about ordering. The oatmeal — which contains craisins, dark raisins and golden raisins — is packed with healthy benefits. According to Painter, recent studies have shown naturally sweet raisins are heart-healthy and nutrient-rich, and even give runners a boost in performance.

In addition to whole raisins, raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate are providing a healthier way to sweeten foods. The CRMB’s culinary and food formulation teams are currently working with chefs to show how these ingredients can add flavor to gluten-free baked goods and lend sweetness to sauces.

Earlier this year, CRMB consulting chef Todd Downs prepared tamarind-glazed chicken wings using raisin-juice concentrate at the Menu Directions Conference. Painter says the Asian-inspired dish highlights the flavorful yet better-for-you power of naturally sweetened menu items.

During the March 2012 Restaurant Leadership Conference, Painter proposed operators join forces to create a web-based, consumer-focused nutrition education program, which would feature healthy options from chains nationwide. “If restaurants across the industry support the program,” he says, “the nutrition education program will be hard to ignore — it would be huge news.”


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