Nutrition | May 2015 | By Maggie Hennessy

Healthy Menu Hang-Ups

New dietary guidelines could motivate operators to retool their menus.
Pizza brands like Domino’s put nutrition control in customers’ hands by allowing them to customize their pies. domino’s

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recently recommended changes to what Americans should eat, including suggestions to consume less meat, sugar, and saturated fat. While many operators remain focused on the calorie-count mandate set to take effect later this year under the Affordable Care Act, consultants say, the new guidelines also present an opportunity for brands to establish a formal strategy that makes health a permanent part of their business plans.

The DGAC—made up of 14 top nutrition experts—submitted its report in February to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), which will jointly publish the updated Dietary Guidelines before the end of the year. Many of the proposed changes in the 571-page report reinforce what is fairly agreed upon: Americans should eat fewer overall calories, more plant-based foods, and less sugar and saturated fat. Among the report’s notable firsts were suggestions to put a ceiling on total calories from sugar at 10 percent.

Howland Blackiston, principal at branding and design consultancy King-Casey, based in Westport, Connecticut, says his quick-serve and fast-casual clients aren’t too concerned about the updated guidelines right now.

“All they seem to care about is mandatory calorie counts; that’s what the focus is on right now,” Blackiston says.

Similarly, an expert at Chicago-based marketing and culinary consultancy CSSI says many of the firm’s clients are waiting to see how consumers respond to label mandates.

“Consumers all approach healthy eating differently. Some want to know chains are working toward healthier menu items; others don’t,” says Marie Molde, registered dietitian at CSSI, which also provides brands with support on nutritional guideline compliance. “[Chains] want to first label items how they are and see consumer response, and then move forward from there.”

Still, many suggest the guidelines provide operators with a glimpse into the future of consumer demands and a blueprint for menu formulation moving forward.

“No drastic menu changes”

In light of the DGAC’s recommendations, sandwich chain Subway plans to continue improving individual products through fewer ingredients and thorough testing. Corporate dietitian Lanette Kovachi says the brand is “already an industry leader in providing heart-healthy and low-fat sandwich options” for customers.

“As we continue to improve our offerings, no drastic menu changes are necessary, meaning the flavors that our customers have come to know and love will continue to remain delicious and nutritious,” Kovachi adds.

Transparency on menus has long been a key part of Subway’s health platform, as the brand has provided printed nutrition information on menuboards, tray liners, and napkins since 1997. It has since made the information available online, adding allergen information and a nutritional calculator in recent years, as well.

Similarly, Domino’s looked to get out ahead of labeling mandates as “one of the first national chains” to voluntarily post its nutritional content online 13 years ago, says Tim McIntyre, vice president of corporate communications. “We continue to look for ways to reduce sodium and fat … without compromising taste,” he says, adding that the best way for the pizza industry to address the DGAC’s recommendations is by giving consumers plenty of options.

“The beauty of pizza is that it’s so customizable,” he says. “With our multiple crust types, ... sizes, and combination of toppings, there are more than 34 million ways to order a single pizza from Domino’s. That means, in essence, customers can make their pizzas as indulgent or as healthy as they want. It’s all about consumer choice.”

A new menu strategy

Jesse Szewczyk, CSSI’s associate research and development chef, says that those brands tackling healthy reformulation are largely favoring a gradual approach as opposed to drastic changes.

“Probably 70 percent of the projects I’ve done in the past several years have been geared toward a slow, quiet approach to healthier menus rather than all at once,” Szewczyk says, adding that a lot of chains are giving broad guidelines for improvements when it comes to health.

Blackiston says he isn’t that surprised that many operators are taking a noncommittal approach to the DGAC report.

“A menu strategy is a lot of work. It requires rolling up their sleeves, getting a lot of different disciplines in the room, and getting them all to agree on which changes they are going to make on the menu to achieve their business objectives and how they’re going to do it,” he says.

Rolling out a new menu strategy—including assessing the competition, understanding regulations, conducting consumer research, identifying risks, setting prices, and designing a new menuboard—can take four to six months, he says. The new guidelines present an opportunity to develop a new strategy and test it.

“The obvious question is, What will be the impact to business if we make these changes?” Blackiston says. “Part of that is doing research to test concepts and ideas without even creating a menu item—just the concept of one. For example, what would happen if we had less meat on menu? You can test that and then make decisions.”

Start with sugar, plants

Registered dietitian and New York University adjunct professor Lisa Young, Ph.D., says the DGAC report heavily emphasized sugar on the menu.

“Sugar was one of the biggest items on the committee’s agenda,” she says. “For the first time, they issued an actual limit. For the food industry, that means really trying to go lower on sugar.”

An easy fix, she says, would be providing consumers with more options beyond sugary beverages like soda, such as bottled water, seltzer, and flavored sparkling water.

“The beverage industry can make money selling water,” she says. “People aren’t going to be drinking tap. They can charge the same amount for seltzer or sparkling flavored water.”

Another issue highlighted in the report was the recommendation that Americans eat more plant-based foods and less meat given its lower environmental impact, Young says.

Pulses—legumes such as dry peas and lentils—are an inexpensive way to beef up and differentiate these items, Szewczyk says.

“Recently, chains have begun exploring ways to menu pulses, from creative takes on meat-centric dishes such as lentil Bolognese or lentil pâté to calling out specific varieties of lentils such as Puy or French on menus,” he says. “They are a great source of protein and are easy to lighten historically heavier dishes such as cream soups, where lentils can be used to add the richness without added fat from heavy cream.”

Unlike some menu improvements that aren’t as easy to market on a menu—such as switching from saturated to polyunsaturated oils—offering more fresh, local vegetable options and sustainably raised meat, or adding a composting program, are all concepts that resonate well with consumers, Blackiston says.

Where I have seen marketing on menuboards done effectively is most to do with freshness, sustainability, and local,” he says. “There’s a positive reception to that from consumers. It’s all about freshness now.”

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