Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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The Pear Bureau Northwest provides fresh ideas for healthful offerings, like combining a savory Turkey and Brie Burger with caramelized pears and lightening it up with a crisp, tangy pear slaw. Photo courtesy of pear bureau northwest.
Options abound for developing healthy yet tasty dishes, and commodity boards are here to help

By  V. L. Hartmann

It used to be that when it came to menu development, chefs and foodservice operators tended to leave the responsibility for providing balanced, healthy meals up to others. “I’m your chef, not your doctor,” the saying was. But government-mandated regulations and growing consumer demand for healthy food options has prompted a new philosophy: Providing and promoting great-tasting dishes with good nutritional value helps an operator grow a healthy business.

But how do you create lean, healthy dishes without sacrificing flavor? In this new better-for-you frontier, commodity boards can be a chef’s greatest ally. Boards spend their own resources to conduct valuable research on their products. They also provide inspiration and advice to help menu developers create recipes that highlight a product’s nutritional value without compromising taste.

“The boards have proven to be a good resource for us to tap into for the creative process, helping us develop new ideas that our team can use to develop into possible menu items,” explains Bill Powell, director of culinary development at LongHorn Steakhouse. “The constant challenge all of us in the foodservice industry face is to develop new ideas and concepts for our menu that excite our guests and differentiate us from competitors.”

We spoke with representatives from a handful of commodity boards to highlight winning strategies that help clients create menus full of healthy dishes consumers will crave.

University of Massachusetts-Amherst, home to the nation’s second-largest campus dining operation, serves 40,000 meals a day. Dining staffers there find that the pressure to provide healthy meals comes straight from the students. “They want foods to be healthy, fresh, and made right in front of them,” says Ken Toong, director of dining operations at UMass Dining. In a recent university survey, more than 90 percent of dining hall patrons named “eating healthy” a priority. So when it came to the classic student comfort food — peanut butter — UMass Dining aimed to devise a fresh, fun way to serve it up to students.

The National Peanut Board (NPB), a farmer-funded national research and promotional organization, is always looking for new ways to move the heart-healthy, protein-rich peanut to the center of the plate. Working with universities to incorporate more peanut butter in their dining operations was a natural fit. The NPB also has a long-standing relationship with the retail brand Peanut Butter & Co., which uses U.S.-grown peanuts in its popular flavored peanut butters.

The NPB introduced UMass Dining to Peanut Butter & Co. The collaboration produced  a branded peanut butter bar, where students can create their own sandwiches from a choice of breads, toppings and flavored peanut butters. Students can whip up everything from traditional PB&Js to Peanut Butter & Co.’s take on “The Elvis,” a grilled peanut butter sandwich with bananas and honey. Diners can opt for more savory creations, too, using Peanut Butter & Co.’s spicy peanut butter, “The Heat is On.” “When paired with mango chutney, it can have an Indian flavor. With pineapple jam, it takes on an Indonesian flavor,” Peanut Butter & Co. President Lee Zalben says. Students can also grind their own peanut butter fresh — a feature they love.

Zalben says his long-standing relationship with the NPB has served his company well. “We have worked with the Peanut Board to promote the nutritional benefits and alternative uses for peanut butter,” he says. “Working together, we’re encouraging people to explore peanut butter not just as a spread but as a cultural touchstone.”

When soybean oil is used to fry a fish taco, the flavor is maintained without the fat content of traditional oil. Photo courtesy of united soybean board.
Diners already know that pears are plenty healthy — an excellent source of daily fiber and vitamin C. So the Pear Bureau Northwest (PBN), the non-profit marketing organization that promotes U.S.-grown pears, focuses on finding creative ways to feature pears on menus nationwide. To reinforce pears as a healthy option for operators, the PBN educates operators and distributors about the pear’s nutritional profile, and its role as diners strive to make half their plates fruits and vegetables per the current USDA dietary guidelines and the MyPlate initiative (of which PBN is a National Strategic Partner). According to Cristie Mather, director of communications for PBN, their work is — ahem — bearing fruit: A recent PBN survey found that menu mentions for pears have climbed 40 percent since 2006 — doubling on dessert menus and tripling as part of appetizers.

“They are a very versatile fruit, complementing both savory and sweet dishes. Plus, they are filling, and keep people satiated for longer,” Mather says, adding that as a top fiber fruit, pears are a great complement to weight loss diets. “With pears, operators have the opportunity to treat diners to an upscale, uncommon ingredient that is healthy and also rather substantial on the plate. Slicing one pear into a salad pear adds 24 percent of the daily value of fiber, which helps diners feel full for longer.”

Recently, Panera Bread’s purchasing team contacted PBN for help developing a pear salad. “They were deciding whether adding pears to the menu made sense,” Mather explains. In addition to outlining for Panera the distinctive qualities of USA Pear’s ten varieties, their seasonal availability and average pricing for each, the PBN emphasized pears’ nutritional profile, and how they can enhance a better-for-you positioning. “Operators are always pleased to hear about the pear’s nutritional profile, and are sometimes surprised to hear just how much a pear has to offer, especially in terms of their excellent fiber content and their relatively low calorie count (100 calories per medium-sized pear),” she says.

“Our input proved valuable,” Mather adds, noting that the sandwich chain chose the versatile Anjou pear for a salad on their seasonal “Celebration” menu. The new Roasted Turkey Harvest Salad features all-natural roasted turkey, fresh Anjou pears, field greens, dried cherries, Gorgonzola, pecans and a cherry balsamic vinaigrette. “This salad offers a great combination of ingredients that provide diners essential nutrition including protein, fiber, vitamin C, calcium and more which will keep them feeling full and satisfied for hours — something that can’t be said for a simple leafy salad,” notes Mather.

The Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association (MHAIA) delivers avocados from Mexico’s Michoacán district to the United States year round. Their mission: to help foodservice operators incorporate the popular fruit into a variety of healthy dishes.

“Fresh avocados are realizing a resurgence in foodservice thanks to growing consumer demand for more healthful, authentic, flavorful foods at all price points,” says Jackie Bohmer, marketing director of MHAIA. “Consumers are willing to pay more for menu items featuring avocados. So operators can mark up items with fresh avocado while they attract new customers and increase profit margins.”

A recent MHAIA study revealed that the number of avocados sold in the United States increased by 42 percent since 2006. The authors attribute the fruit’s explosion in popularity in part to the nation’s growing Hispanic population, which has increased 43 percent in the past decade. The growing presence of fresh avocados on the menus of quick-service chains, ranging from Au Bon Pain to Subway, helps too.

Au Bon Pain added avocados to the menu in 2011 as an option to add onto any sandwich or salad. They also featured avocados in two healthy new dishes — an egg white, avocado and cheddar breakfast sandwich, and a chipotle black bean burger with avocado. At Subway, avocados joined the menu as a preservative-free spread on a turkey and bacon avocado sandwich.

MHAIA serves as a resource to chain restaurants and sandwich shops, offering new recipes and inspiration at culinary events nationwide and through the group’s website. The board advises restaurants on best practices for ripening and storing avocados, which can present a challenge. MHAIA also takes menu developers to the source, by inviting fast-casual and casual-dining corporate chefs to Michoacán for Morelia en Boca, an annual local food and wine festival.

“Our guests toured an avocado grove and tasted innovative ways to use the fruit,” Bohmer says, describing last year’s trip. “Our goal was to inspire chefs to experiment with avocados by exposing them to truly authentic Mexican cuisine and cooking techniques.”

The National Peanut Board suggests creative, nutritious ways to make use of peanuts’ unique traits, such as the vegetarian Brussels sprout sandwich with peanuts, served at No. 7 Sub in New York City. Photo courtesy of national peanut board.

As operators aim to be increasingly mindful of nutrition, limiting the fat content of menu items is a top priority. That’s a particular challenge when it comes to popular fried foods. One promising solution is a new oil that significantly reduces the saturated and trans-fat content of fried foods without changing their familiar taste.

According to the United Soybean Board (USB), high-oleic soybean oil contains no trans fats and 20 to 50 percent less saturated fat than traditional frying oils such as fry shortening and commodity oil. The Board notes that, in taste tests, 70 percent of subjects rated french fries cooked in high-oleic soybean oil as their first or second choice.

“Restaurants know that consumers aren’t really going to give up their fried foods,” says Joy Blakeslee, a registered dietician with the USB. “So it’s a matter of making the oils an option that is better for you.”

The USB recently received requests for customized menu proposals from major fast-food chains, including McDonald’s and Burger King. That interest could mark a significant shift toward healthier frying oil. “The outlook looks great from our end,” Blakeslee says. “And we’re confident that the supply is there to meet the coming demand.”

In fact, the demand for healthy and tasty menu options will only grow as greater numbers of health-conscious consumers realize they can eat out healthfully. Partnerships with commodity boards can help operators cook up fresh ideas and fresh ways to profit from them. “It’s really about building relationships,” Blakeslee says. “We’re here to be a resource.”


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