The Mindful Dining Initiative: The Evolving Definition Of Healthfulness

Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.

By Sharon Olson

Read Jim Prevor’s Commentary below

Consumer interest in health and wellness has been a mega trend for several years. There is no doubt produce plays an important role in consumers’ desires related to their wellbeing. New consumer research from Culinary Visions sheds light on an evolving definition of health and indulgence among modern consumers that points to opportunity for the produce industry.

The Mindful Dining Initiative is a project that began in 2014 and is an on-going body of work. Its objective is to explore the psychology of food and beverage choices made by consumers away from home. The latest study in the project was completed in late 2018 and included 2,000 consumers in the United States, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Participants in the survey were queried about balancing health and indulgence when dining away from home.

Restaurant dining has long been considered an opportunity to indulge and leave dietary concerns at home. To that end, 86 percent of Americans agreed that going out is a time to treat oneself, and more than half (53 percent) of those surveyed would rather not see the calories listed on the menu.

Eating away from home has become an expected aspect of everyday life, and there is continued pressure on foodservice establishments to offer more healthful choices. Eighty-six percent of Americans surveyed said they enjoy U.S. fast food, and 70 percent think big U.S. restaurant chains have healthy options.

Rather than depriving themselves of indulgence, 66 percent of Americans say they balance indulgence with physical activity.

Indulgence today, is about quality of ingredients and having delicious and healthful options available. Eighty-nine percent of U.S. consumers said they care about the quality of ingredients in their meals, and 69 percent said making healthy choices is important to them. Rather than depriving themselves of indulgence, 66 percent of Americans say they balance indulgence with physical activity.

Traditional thinking among restaurant patrons was that one had to compromise on taste when choosing healthy meals and snacks away from home. In this study, less than half (43 percent) of the consumers surveyed believed menu items billed as healthy usually don’t taste great.

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Much of the credit for the movement in this perception goes to professional cooking technology and imaginative, forward thinking chefs experimenting with new more aggressive, cooking methods for produce. For example, a combination oven can roast vegetables as easily as it steams them providing more flavorful options to move produce front and center on restaurant menus.

Another study of 1,500 consumers earlier in 2018 delved into culinary lifestyles of mainstream consumers. When it comes to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, there is more admiration than practice of these lifestyle diets. Sixty percent of consumers aged 18-34 said they admire meat-free lifestyles, and 56 percent went so far as to say they admired the vegan lifestyle. Yet the majority of those who participated in the study were decisively carnivores, with 82 percent saying they love meat.

There is big interest in incorporating more fruits and vegetable into omnivorous diets. Eighty-eight percent of consumers say they want to get more fruits in their diets and 87 percent want more vegetables. The opportunity for produce to play a starring role in menu items is clear — it has moved well beyond the status of side dish to center of the plate. Produce also helps foodservice operations feed Americans’ desires for large portions with healthy and affordable choices. Seventy percent of those surveyed said they love restaurants that offer larger meal servings.

Consumers are ditching diets in favor of an enlightened approach to overall wellness. More than half (53 percent) of consumers say they are not interested in dieting, and 85 percent say they think people get too caught up in food fads. Sixty-six percent say eating food they feel good about is more important than watching their weight.

Sharon Olson is Executive Director of Culinary Visions, a division of Olson Communications based in Chicago. Culinary Visions is a food-focused insight and trend-forecasting firm that provides original consumer and culinary professional research for companies in the food industry.

Hard To Pinpoint The Whims Of Consumer Indulgence

By Jim Prevor

Georges Clemenceau was twice Prime Minister of France, at a time when it was popular to say that the “voice of the people was the voice of God.” Clemenceau explained that the task of a leader was to “follow that voice shrewdly.”

Into that one word, “shrewdly,” was packed a lifetime of experience and skepticism. And so, retailers and producers both could do with reading a little Clemenceau as they try to decipher the meaning of consumer attitudes toward healthfulness.

When looking at grocery shopping, a Martian just landed in America who got all his information from The New York Times might assume that consumers yearn to “know their farmer,” want to ensure that the supply chain rigorously ensures ethical treatment of workers, prefer organic, local and are rapidly moving toward vegan and vegetarian eating habits.

Given corporate profiles and asked to speculate, our friendly Martian is likely to guess that the largest supermarket chain in America is Whole Foods.

Of course, he would be wrong. By an order of magnitude, it is Walmart that is the largest food-selling chain in the country. The fastest growing? That would be Aldi. These two chains are united by their thirst for the position of low-cost leader!

Does this mean that consumers are not telling the truth? Sometimes. Mostly, though, it is that the answers you get depends heavily on the questions you ask. If you ask consumers questions about food, you learn a lot about the zeitgeist of the age. People speak in an aspirational manner, elucidating values they want to be associated with.

The problem is that there are other things people value. The mechanism in the questions to get at whether a consumer values, say, saving money to take the children on a trip to Disneyland or prefers to cancel the trip to ensure funds are available to buy everything organic, well that kind of trade-off is difficult to research.

When it comes to food consumed outside of the home, the issue is even more complicated. People may well want to eat healthy. They may also want to drink lots of alcohol. They may even persuade themselves that medical advice urges them to drink copious amounts of red wine and eat large bars of dark chocolate.

Sharon Olson is a gifted researcher, and she points directly to the fact that eating out is often an indulgence. So, culturally, the question is what do people perceive to be an indulgence. If consumers really live more mindful lives at home and eat with a focus on healthfulness, then it is entirely possible that the same consumers will go wild when they eat out. So, at home it can be a small portion of a poached chicken breast with steamed broccoli, and when they go out it is fried chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese and deep-fried okra.

If consumers really live more mindful lives at home and eat with a focus on healthfulness, then it is entirely possible that the same consumers will go wild when they eat out.

If the culture has changed, however, it may well be that at least some people would see the fried chicken not as an indulgence but as something fatty and unappealing. We’ve seen cultural changes in what upscale means. In the 1970s, “gourmet” departments in supermarkets were filled with high-priced foods from Europe in little glass bottles. In time, upscale came to mean fresh, almost the antithesis of those little glass jars.

More research needs to be done to get a better handle on what consumers see as indulgent today. Certainly, it is true that chefs have moved over to a more plant-centric ideal. Instead of building their dishes solely around the protein of the day, they are using proteins to flavor dishes built around the vegetable or fruit that is in season.
The problem is that this is very high-end stuff — and the white tablecloth sector is, maybe, 1 percent of the restaurant industry. It is not clear that these types of offerings —indulgent produce-based dishes — are actually working their way down to the average dinner house, much less to the fast food sector.

Another problem is that an awful lot of restaurants provide fuel as much as food. It is not uncommon for restaurants to serve as a fueling station, with consumers driving through with the kids on the way home from soccer practice when homework is to be done, running through an airport with 20 minutes to eat before you have to board a flight, grabbing something for lunch so you can still pick up your dry cleaning. In other words, if the only issue is food, it may well be that many consumers will make value-based decisions, but life does not always revolve around food, so people make decisions based on convenience just as they do on money.

Produce is very appealing. It is colorful, adds crunch and texture to food. Some items, such as avocados, are wildly praised for their health impact, and all this connects with social aspirations that people are expressing in selecting their diets. The challenge for the produce industry is keeping consumers focused on all this, rather than seeing consumers focus on quick, cheap and, sometimes, old-fashioned indulgence.