How to cater to the health-conscious diner through customisation

Ariwasabi  (Shutterstock)

Ariwasabi (Shutterstock)

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Every decade or so a new health and dieting trend is revealed that countless consumers seem to follow. In the 70s, 80s and mid-90s we declared war on fat. Then, we avoided fatty foods, but potatoes, bread and pasta were fantastic – full of lovely carbohydrates. Then there was the war on salt, followed by a renunciation of carbohydrates in the past 15 years, when the Atkins diet was king and restaurants quickly adapted, replacing potatoes and bread with more generous portions of veg and sophisticated snacks like olives or dips.

According to the latest Mintel research, the world has just declared war on sugar, and on a massive scale. Press, media and health organisations now claim that added sugar is the single most dangerous ingredient which consumers should avoid at all cost. According to the NHS, adults today currently consume over four times the sugar they should, at a shocking 20 per cent of their daily calorie intake. But surely, even those who cut right down on sugar, won’t completely eliminate the ingredient at all times. Aside from the fact that sugar in the right quantities is a key ingredient of a balanced diet, food is meant for enjoyment as well as fuel. Life without a chocolate cake or a glass of wine... ever… not for me.

I’m one of the many consumers who moved away from the regime of hard core dieting, and replaced it with more “balanced” approach. Unsurprisingly, my approach to dieting is not unique. According to Mintel’s research, there are many consumers who are interested in reducing their sugar consumption, but do not wish to refrain from consuming it during every meal and snack indefinitely. No doubt sugar is a massive contributor to obesity when overindulged on - just like fat and carbs - but despite being labelled “the new cocaine”, it is not a poison. Sugar is often present within the naturally-occurring ingredients in foods, even items like organic fruits, vegetables and grains. If we had absolutely no sugar in our diets, we would simply become malnourished. It’s about balance, moderation and customisation to occasion, not total exclusion!

Whether it be fitness enthusiasts who follow a strict diet six days a week and allow themselves a ‘cheat day’, consumers who are on a health kick on Mondays but tend to be much more relaxed in their food and drink choices by Saturday, or hard-core clean eaters, the health-conscious consumer creates a challenge for the foodservice industry. As Mintel’s “Attitudes towards Premium Soft Drinks” report from February 2015 indicates, it is not as simple as making a menu or item wholly health-based. They reported that 62 per cent of consumers are more willing to pay for a product like a premium soft drink with a clear difference in taste compared to cheaper brands. This, they say, indicates that “taste should be a central tenet in brands’ marketing in this segment.” But how can the food industry deliver on nutrition whilst ensuring that healthy food and drink will appeal to each customer’s specific taste and requirements? The answer is customisation.

Custom-made health kick

One of the key issues with delivering healthy alternatives in bars and restaurants is that customers wish to enjoy premium products, which, as Aimee Townshend, Research Analyst at Mintel explains, are regarded as treats. Generally, customers come to the bar or restaurant to catch up with friends, and water simply won’t do for quality socialising. According to Mintel’s 2016 presentation, “Understanding consumers’ perceptions to sweetened new products”, a large proportion of consumers do their own research before making a purchase. Understanding the wide variety of alternatives on the market, consumers now feel that they should not have to compromise the element of indulgence if they wish to maintain a healthy diet on nights out. Therefore, sugary soft drinks must be replaced with healthier, yet tasty, beverages.

Custom-made smoothies and mocktails are one of the most promising developments in this area. As we recently explained, 'skinny' cocktails give the taste of a treat whilst keeping sugar and calories low by using fresh fruit, coconut water, shrubs, and spice. In food and drink alike, the element of customisation is key, here, as consumers appreciate the opportunity to subtract ingredients they are attempting to avoid, or to add in ‘superfoods’ packed full of nutritional benefits. Keeping a store of flexible flavours available will allow industry players to give guests a sense of luxury by giving them a dish that is completely unique to the individual. After all, following a strict diet can leave one craving an opportunity to enjoy the flavours they love the most.

Harnessing natural

One of the central values of modern-day healthy diets is naturalness. Whereas, in the past, artificial sweeteners and decaffeinated coffees were regarded as a mindful choice, as research has revealed the negative aspects of these substitutions, natural alternatives are lauded as the ideal. Mintel’s 2017 European Consumer Trends explains that this stretches to an institutional level – the incoming sugar tax beginning in 2018 will exclude pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks from levies, suggesting that those products that choose to stay closer to nature’s design are in the limelight. Consumers, too, are leaning towards natural ingredients: no longer are individuals fooled by zero-calorie claims on items such as Coca Cola – they are well aware of the health risks of sweeteners such as aspartame, and would rather choose sugar over such alternatives, albeit resentfully. As a healthier alternative, we might see growing usage of the natural yet sweet-tasting agave syrup, as Mintel suggests that already 25 per cent of millennials are willing to pay a premium for natural sweeteners. As Mintel’s “Attitudes towards Premium Soft Drinks” report explains, “The naturalness of ingredients is widely seen as a premium quality, reflecting consumer aversion to artificial ingredients in food more widely.” It is important for restaurants and bars to harness the potential of natural ingredients such as agave syrup, fresh fruits and honey, keeping in mind that it sugar, not sweetness itself, that customers are looking to avoid.

Mintel  (“Understanding consumers’ perceptions to sweetened new products”)

Mintel (“Understanding consumers’ perceptions to sweetened new products”)

Catering to the occasion

Something that drinks producers in particular ought to remember is that consumers truly looking for the healthiest selection on a daily basis will usually choose the most basic options. The consumer looking for the least calorific drink will choose water. For health products consumed at home or work, any offering above your standard fruit and veg must pack a punch in terms of wholesome, ‘superfood’ ingredients that will actively deliver vitamins and nutrients rather than simply avoid unhealthy ones. Consumers will not pay extra for abstinence alone. Out of the home, customers are looking for a sense of occasion, and healthy offerings that match the tone this tone. For example, restaurants could benefit from offering customised non-alcoholic drink matching with healthy dishes. Given the high sugar content of alcoholic drinks, and their obvious health drawbacks, many consumers are choosing to opt for soft drinks, but still want to maintain the feeling of occasion. Food and drink matching dishes with premium soft drinks to complement the flavours in a dish is one original method that should be explored by restaurants who are serious about catering to health-conscious customers.

Accommodating specialist diets

With the commitment to healthy eating often comes the adoption of specialist diets. In the past few years, the number of people following gluten-free, vegan and paleo diets has soared – and an increasing number of their followers are doing so for health and image reasons more than allergies or ethical quandaries. With this in mind, it is simply not good enough to offer healthy meals on a menu if they are not adaptable to specialist diets. Even if a customer following a gluten-free diet is not coeliac, they will avoid dishes that are healthy, yet contain gluten. These kinds of specialist diets are an all-in affair. Restaurants must offer various options for even the most niche dietary plans, with choices that are not just ‘free from’, but are also full of flavour. Clarity and knowledge are also paramount – as Mintel reports, 74 per cent of millennial consumers want to see more transparency in food product ingredients, from the supermarket to the high-end restaurant. Thus, employee knowledge and comprehensive menu descriptions are a must.