Back-to-school time as a kid use to signal the return of some highly popular foods. Neon fruit snacks, cheese crackers, bags of chips, juice pouches, and some of the staples of the cafeteria line like chicken nuggets, nachos and personal pizzas were just a few of the items being reintroduced to the average American student’s diet. It was all about convenience and taste, with the occasional nod to health, like a popular juice drink claiming to be better for you than soda (despite added sugar still being the first ingredient). Now, school lunches are a completely different story. Not only have school lunch nutritional criteria tightened, albeit just to be loosened under the current administration, but parents have upped their game when it comes to the classic brown bag lunch. While taste and convenience are always important factors for busy moms and dads, there has been a huge shift to focusing on what’s actually in the food. Preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and other eyebrow-raising ingredients are out, and the demand for clean label products is in.
This shift isn’t just seen at the grocery store. These same consumers shopping for short ingredient lists at their neighborhood supermarket are also starting to hold restaurants and other foodservice establishments to the same high standard. In fact, the National Restaurant Association listed “Natural Ingredients and Clean Menus” as #3 on their list of top conceptual trends for 2017. The average American spends nearly 40% of their food budget on food away from home. This means that there’s a huge market share for these consumers demanding a high level of transparency in their food. However, that’s not to say this is an easy arena to step into. Many brands have been met with legal action against seemingly “misleading” claims for their products. Foodservice operators need to step lightly when it comes to making claims about their food, but having reliable “clean” menu items not an impossible task.
The first step for any brand looking to eliminate ingredients from their menu items is simple…you have to figure out where they are! A full menu review to scrutinize each and every sub-ingredient is key if accurate and reliable information is the desired end-game. Once the full ingredient breakdown of each ingredient is determined, the brand can then decide what to focus on next. Some additives can be viewed as the low-hanging fruit, because their presence in the food supply has become so limited and there are easy “clean” alternatives. High fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are great examples of ingredients that tend to turn diners off, but can oftentimes be eliminated from the menu without a jolt to food cost or flavor.
The next step in the process is up to the operator depending on what guests are looking for. Is there a high demand to remove artificial flavors? Are artificial flavors the main ingredient being brought up in consumer surveys? Listening to the voice of the customer and tailoring your efforts to their demands is a great way to see results without going through an entire supply chain revamp. Guests respond well to transparency, so restaurateurs shouldn’t be afraid to share their game plan of ingredient changes, even if it’s going to take several years to complete. 67% of Americans say that they want to know everything that goes into their food, so being upfront and honest about what you’re serving can go a long way in terms of gaining loyal, trusting diners.