To date, food companies have a lot more experience dealing with food-labeling legislation than restaurants have. That’s what made insight from Lisa Carlson, nutrition manager for research and development at Unilever Food Solutions all the more helpful during an NRA Show 2011 session Saturday. Her basic mantra: “Nutrition only sells when taste isn’t compromised.” Unilever has spent the past few years trying to figure out how to promote heart health, provide healthy eating information, remove trans fat and reduce salt, saturated fat, sugar, calories and environmental impact — all while maintaining great taste in its food. No easy feat! However, since 2005, Unilever Food Solutions has used its Nutrition Enhancement Program to eliminate 48,000 tons of trans and saturated fat from its portfolio. The lesson? It’s entirely possible for a food company or restaurant to make its products healthier without compromising taste.
Unilever conducted research to determine what people want to know about their food. The lesson? The days of “stealth health” are over. For years, Unilever steadily worked to improve the health of its products without letting customers know. The fear was that customers might not want food considered “healthy.” Now, the opposite is true. Consumers worldwide want transparency with their food. Recent scares with spinach and peanut butter showed food safety is not a given, so customers want to know companies’ actions to ensure safety.
Based on Unilever’s research, these are the top three questions consumers ask about their food.
- What is the source of this food?
- How is it prepared?
- What is its nutrition content?
Restaurants and manufacturers need to think about how they would answer those questions and how they would like to answer those questions. Baby boomer and millennial generations are asking these questions, and you have to be prepared to answer them adequately. Keep in mind that consumers don’t necessarily want to see all of that information on the menu. But they want to know that it is available on your website or via an application.
The most interesting take-away for me was how chefs responded to this question: Could you reduce the amount of calories in your meals without customers noticing? Surprisingly, 93% of chefs surveyed by Unilever Food Solutions said they could reduce calories 10% to 25% without customers knowing. If it’s possible for chefs and food companies, then it’s definitely possible for every restaurant facing menu-labeling legislation.