The situation is well documented: obesity levels are reaching pandemic proportions. With around 300 million people obese across the globe, and many others overweight, this is a multifactorial health crisis which calls for complex solutions. Along with numerous other industries, the food services sector has a critical role to play.

Manufacturers therefore face a challenge: how can they assume their quota of responsibility while still responding to market demand? Forcing healthy foods upon reluctant customers is hardly a good way to generate much business. On the other hand, continuing to serve calorie-rich menus is very much a case of head-in-sand.

Framed this way, the dichotomy seems stark, but luckily it breaks down under inspection. The basic anti-obesity message has not suffered from a lack of propagation – across the world, people have absorbed the healthy eating agenda, and many of them are intent on making changes.

"We all know the health problems are huge," says Ria van der Maas, global nutrition and health manager for Unilever Food Solutions. "In most countries, you can see TV programmes about obese people being helped to lose weight. So people are being driven by this concern about health, and that informs their choices when they eat out."

Public opinion

Unilever Food Service’s ‘World Menu Report 2012’ provides a firm indication of public attitudes. Involving 5,000 participants across ten countries, all of whom dine out at least once a week, the survey suggested that 66% of consumers seek out the healthier option on a menu. The survey also posited that over half would prefer to have slightly healthier food options available, and that a similar number like to substitute part of their dish for something more nutritionally balanced.

The message for the industry is clear: providing healthy choices is not so much about influencing customers as it is about kowtowing to demand. From this perspective, restaurants only stand to gain from improving their nutritional credentials.

"People care more than they used to about what’s in their food," affirms Kees van Erp, the company’s global lead chef. "As an international chef myself, I think the number of people who are on diets or have special dietary requirements is rising enormously."

Of course, the trend isn’t all one-way. The survey also showed that, with 72% of respondents preferring to treat themselves, not everyone succeeds in separating nutrition from its negative associations. Four in ten people stated healthy options aren’t as filling; at least a third said they weren’t as tasty and a clear majority found them more expensive.

The industry, then, must engage itself in a tricky balancing act; on one hand, doing its bit to redress the obesity crisis and serve health-conscious consumers; on the other, retaining all the sensory gratifications linked to eating out.

“Unilever Food Solutions, a branch of Unilever devoted to professional food service markets, works with businesses of all sizes to make their kitchens more successful.”

Professional ingredients

Unilever Food Solutions, a branch of Unilever devoted to professional food service markets, works with businesses of all sizes to make their kitchens more successful. Concocting ingredients is part of its job – brands include Knorr, Hellmann’s and Lipton, and the company boasts 230 chefs worldwide alongside a large team of nutritionists.

In recent years, several trends have emerged in terms of recipe innovation. One is a greater emphasis on vegetables. No longer relegated to side dishes, these are increasingly being viewed as an integral component of a meal. Another has to do with cooking techniques – specifically, finding methods to lock in flavour without the need for calorific additives.

"In some countries we’re seeing more roasting and barbecuing to give that taste to dishes, whereas in other areas it’s techniques like stir-frying or vacuum cooking so as to not lose the flavours," explains van Erp. "Elsewhere, we’re seeing more usee of spices and spice mixes of upcoming cuisines to bring the excitement and boldness to the dishes. More and more chefs are playing with that."

Developing recipes, however, is not the company’s only point of focus; it also devotes significant resources towards providing actionable information. With its biannual ‘World Menu Report’, it throws up some interesting answers to the health vs marketability conundrum.

"If you fail to engage consumers for your product then it won’t work," points out van der Maas. "We believe that to make it easy for consumers, the culinary and nutritional worlds need to work together to make changes. That way, you ensure not only nutritional balance but also a tasty dish from a culinary perspective."

Unilever describes its approach as ‘seductive nutrition’, suggesting that health and desirability need not be mutually exclusive. The goal is to help consumers translate their intentions into reality, all the while driving business for the restaurant. Ultimately, this has the potential to become something of a virtuous circle.

"In the end we can only make nutritional changes if there’s the money to do so, and it has to be a high-selling item for the money to be there," says van der Maas. "So the investment comes from the turnover, and then improvement can go on and on."

So what can businesses do to address both aspects simultaneously? The company has a few suggestions. One is a matter of basic menu psychology. If healthy foods are made to sound as appetising as possible, any ‘bland’ associations will be overridden. These foods need to be positioned as equivalent to their counterparts in terms of quality, taste and price.

The power of words

Unilever’s findings clearly testify to the power of semantics. Respondents were asked to assess two menus, one of which was ‘neutral’ and the other ‘seductive’. The neutral menu offered ‘steamed trout, whole grain rice, tomato sauce, grilled root vegetables with a garlic and olive oil dressing’. The seductive menu, playing upon the sensuous connotations evoked by food origins and cooking methods, listed ‘line-caught steamed trout, whole grain rice, tasty tomato sauce, spicy grilled root vegetables with an authentic Italian garlic and olive oil dressing’. Unsurprisingly, respondents in nine out of ten countries were more drawn to the latter.

“Unilever has launched a 24-calorie challenge, which stipulates that cutting just 24 calories per meal can make a positive net difference to people’s diets.”

Another point is to ensure nutritional transparency. If consumers have a clear idea what’s in their food and how it’s been prepared, it becomes easier for them to take decisions into their own hands. For the customer, knowledge is power; for the restaurant, nutritionally balanced options may receive an additional boost in sales.

"We try to be as transparent about our ingredients as possible, and I think that’s a big win for consumers," says van der Maas of Unilever’s labelling strategy. "It’s a challenge for us as a company to attain that transparency, but it’s one we work hard to realise."

Indeed, the latest regulations look set to force the issue. The FDA’s Affordable Care Act requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to list calorie contents for standard menu items. And in Europe, the EU Proposal for Food Information is in the process of tightening up food labelling legislation.

As to what information menus should reveal, the precise perception of ‘healthy food’ is swayed by cultural factors. Of the countries Unilever surveyed, all cited fat, calories, preservatives and food additives as relevant variables. But China is also interested in vitamins and proteins, whereas the UK and US are specifically concerned about salt.

Of course, whatever the industry efforts, some customers will forever remain loath to choose the ‘healthy option’. In those cases there is nothing to be gained from aggressively marketing salads and steamed tofu. Take a fast food joint – most customers come here for cheap, quick sustenance of the sort that wins few nutritional accolades. The savvier option is to take customers’ existing favourites, subtly tweak the recipes and look towards achieving a form of ‘stealth health’.

Calorie counting

A dramatic overhaul is generally unnecessary. For instance, Unilever has launched a 24-calorie challenge, which stipulates that cutting just 24 calories per meal can make a positive net difference to people’s diets. The move is in-keeping with the UK government’s Calorie Reduction pledge, which aims to ‘reduce the nation’s intake by 5 billion calories a day’.

"If you make small changes – a few more vegetables in the dish, or using ingredients that are a little bit lower in fat or sugar – you don’t significantly alter a consumer’s favourite dish," says van der Maas. "Even a hamburger base you can make slightly healthier, by using a wholegrain bun instead of a white bun or a sauce that’s lower in fat."

Van Erp agrees. "If you analyse dishes, and see what gives them their taste, in some cases it’s the strength of an ingredient or the strength of a sauce rather than fat or salt," he says. "Salt and fat can help but there are other ways to make it work. So let’s say you want texture, there are other ways to get that same creamy feeling that you have with dairy cream."

As the food services industry rises to these challenges, it is clear that everyone involved needs to work in tandem. This is not a matter for any one segment, but for the supply chain as a whole – each party plays a seminal role in nudging consumers towards healthy eating decisions.

For its own part, Unilever Food Solutions is fully intent upon putting its research into practice. "We find out what consumers want, and focus across the whole portfolio on improving our formulations," says van der Maas. "Healthy food is a very holistic concept, but once you pin that down to some more tangible attributes, it helps the consumer be more precise in what they want. And it helps us, as suppliers of the ingredients, know what can be changed."