02 July 2012

Restaurants urged to tackle obesity

The food service industry needs to face up to its responsibilities in tackling the global obesity epidemic, according to a new report launched in Cape Town.


The food service industry needs to face up to its responsibilities in tackling the global obesity epidemic, according to a new report launched in Cape Town yesterday by Unilever Food Solutions. With one billion overweight adults and a staggering 300 million cases of obesity worldwide, this figure will rise to 1.5 billion by 2015* unless all parties, including the food service industry, take action now. Locally in South Africa, 68% of the population is overweight and 33.5% are considered obese.

New findings from the World Menu Report highlight that chefs and operators are not meeting their guests’ needs. Guests want the best of both worlds – healthier options on menus (66%) and a treat when eating out (72%). However, most healthy options are considered to be second rate - less appetising (43%), too expensive (57%) and not very filling (45%).

“Unilever Food Solutions is recommending a simple solution to chefs and operators to address this mismatch called ‘Seductive Nutrition’ – a new approach to menu design which nudges guests to choose a healthier option when eating out.  The good news for the industry is that this can help make their businesses healthier too,” says Eelco Camminga, Vice President of Unilever Food Solutions South Africa, Middle East & Pakistan.

Finding a solution: Seductive Nutrition

In a unique piece of research, people in 10 countries, including South Africa, were presented with a healthy dish described on two menus - one "neutral" and the second more "seductive". In nine of the ten countries surveyed, people were more inclined to choose that dish from the latter menu (i.e. dishes which included descriptor words such as: steamed, succulent and fresh proved to be more popular with respondents).

This finding underlies Unilever Food Solutions’ call for establishments to ensure that healthier options are described on menus in such a way that they do not appear to be a "poor second" to their less healthy counterparts – in combining taste and appeal e.g. Line-caught steamed trout, spicy, grilled root vegetables with an authentic Italian garlic and olive oil dressing.

As a leading foodservice provider, Unilever Food Solutions recognises that it has a responsibility to help its customers address this issue for consumers. It believes that the answer lies in "Seductive Nutrition" - nudging their guests towards healthier eating by improving top-selling dishes, ensuring they taste and sound as satisfying and appealing as a less healthy menu option.

Tasty, healthier options

In order to meet this consumer need, chefs and operators are being encouraged to adapt their best-selling dishes so that they are "slightly" healthier than previously – but still sound exciting and tasty. The World Menu Report: Seductive Nutrition highlights the simple and cost effective changes chefs and operators can apply to their menu, ensuring that their guests’ preferred choices are healthier but are just as appealing for them to choose.

When consumers were asked what changes they would like restaurants and eateries to make, the top six most popular requests were:

  • Adding plenty of vegetables (34%)
  • Lowering fat content (32%)                
  • Reducing portion sizes (26%)
  • Grilling or baking (22%)
  • Using fresh ingredients (20%)
  • Lowering the calorie content (19%)

Says Camminga: “‘Seductive Nutrition’ is about balancing the health and appeal of your menus. Chefs can still cook their guests’ favourite dishes and just make them healthier. By using a leaner cut of meat and aromatic spices to flavour instead of lots of salt, the dish is just as tasty and satisfying, sounds delicious and is just a little bit healthier.”

Breaking down the barriers to healthy eating

In the 2011 World Menu Report: What’s in Your Food, Unilever Food solutions revealed that diners want more nutritional information on menus to help them make an informed healthy choice when eating out. This new report makes it clear that although diners want healthier alternatives on menus, more than two fifths (43%) of people admit a main drawback to them actually ordering a healthy option is that they believe that healthier dishes sound less tasty when described on a menu.

Aside from this obstacle, there appears to be a ‘Nutritional Knowledge Gap’ amongst consumers globally, as 75% were unable to identify the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of fat for men and women. This suggests that even though consumers want more nutritional information they don’t always understand how to interpret it in relation to their RDAs.

The report also highlights that another main issue preventing consumers from choosing the healthy option is that they are often perceived as less appealing to diners than those recognised more indulgent dishes. The report goes on to show that well over half (57%) of people agreed that the healthy option tends to be more expensive whilst 45% think they are less filling. 

With the power to implement a positive effect on their guests’ health, chefs and operators are perfectly placed to help consumers make healthier choices. And, to make it ever simpler for them to do this, Unilever Food Solutions has developed the ‘Seductive Nutrition’ Service for restaurateurs around the world with practical advice and guidance on how to do this. Instead of introducing brand new ‘healthy’ creations to their menus, chefs should focus on making small changes to their top-selling dishes. Food must still appeal to consumers emotionally as well as rationally, so chefs and operators must help their guests choose the slightly healthier option whilst still treating themselves. 

Alarming SA stats

Gaby Vreeken, President Marketing, Unilever Food Solutions, says:  “We believe that all of us in the food service industry have a responsibility to tackle the global obesity crisis.  The insights from this major new study show that the challenges of encouraging healthier diets can be addressed with small changes to existing menus.  In essence, it’s no more than a nudge to help guests choose a healthier option. Small steps can have an enormous impact on the health of diners across the world and help to tackle rising obesity levels.”

Keegan Eichstadt, Assistant Nutrition & Health Manager of Unilever Food Solutions South Africa says: “Eating a little bit healthier every time we dine out – through ‘Seductive Nutrition’ - could have a significant long-term impact on South African diner’s overall health. Reducing as little as 25-50 calories from a dish can prevent long term weight gain in a large proportion of people. For example, if you take a popular dish like a burger and chips, and you decrease the portion size from 150g chips (460 kcal) to 125g baked wedges (135 kcal) and  add fresh slice of tomato and basil, you would save 325 kcal and also gain the nutritional and flavour benefits of fresh herbs and vegetables.  

Shân Biesman-Simons, Director of Nutrition and Education and registered dietitian at the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA, says, “The overweight and obesity pandemic is a major global public health concern and statistics in South Africa are alarming - more than 70% of women and 45% of men are overweight or obese. A contributory factor is that many South Africans eat food that is prepared outside of the home - in restaurants, take-away establishments and canteens. Of concern is that these quick foods are often unhealthy and are typically large portions, high in fat, salt and sugar and low in fibre. As a result many people live in environments that promote the development of obesity as well as conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

“Attaining a healthy lifestyle requires wise choices when eating, including food prepared away from home. As food choices play a significant role in the development of cardiovascular disease, it is vital for South Africans to have access to healthier food options when eating out. This can play a major role in helping reduce the obesity pandemic and the burden of cardiovascular disease in South Africa.”

 Best of both worlds

Unilever Food Solutions is on hand to help chefs and operators make these changes easily and efficiently. It will be introducing the ‘Seductive Nutrition’ Service, created by Unilever Food Solutions’ global team of chefs and nutritionists, to help customers adapt their menus with slightly healthier versions of their favourite dishes, and provide tips on how to ‘seductively’ sell these meals to their guests. Whilst taste and value will often win over health, Unilever Food Solutions believes that they should not be mutually exclusive. 

Vreeken continues: “Ultimately, this means that guests get the best of both worlds – their favourite food, but made healthier. By ensuring these dishes are designed to sound and taste as delicious as possible to diners, chefs will be offering healthier food with greater appeal. ‘Seductive Nutrition’ is part of our contribution towards the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan goal of helping more than one billion people improve their health and well-being by 2020. We do this by inspiring chefs to create great tasting dishes that are nutritious and healthy. In April we published our One-Year Progress Report, highlighting the successes made so far in our nutrition and sustainability targets. At Unilever Food Solutions, we take this as inspiration as we continue to contribute to these successful results and work towards reaching the bigger goal.”

Unilever Food Solutions press release

- (Health24, June 2012)

Read more:

Obesity: 8 scary facts
12 eating-out tips for slimmers
Nutrition basics in a nutshell


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