Will Interest in Immunity Boost Produce Sales in Restaurants?

Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Since mid-March when stay-at-home orders were announced around the country, researchers at Datassential have been collecting consumer insights through online surveys and sharing information free-of-charge with the foodservice industry. A recent report showed that three categories of produce are appealing to diners due to beliefs they may be beneficial for boosting immunity.

Immunity is a complex biological system affected by vaccines, sleep quantity and quality, and stress, as well as diet quality. Promises that certain foods or supplements can boost immunity often lack rigorous research to support the claims. But, as we all know, perception is reality. If people believe certain foods have a benefit, they will seek them out.

Here are the three categories of fruits and vegetables consumers believe have the most power for boosting immunity, according to a Datassential consumer survey fielded in early May.

Berries: The Challenge and the Opportunity

Berries of all kinds, from blackberries and blueberries to strawberries and raspberries, are rich in vitamin C, which may reduce the length and severity of the common cold but only if consumed consistently prior to getting sick. Consuming large “doses” of berries once you have a cold does you no good. The vitamin C must do its work in the body prior to an attack by the cold virus.

Promises that certain foods or supplements can boost immunity often lack rigorous research to support the claims. But, as we all know, perception is reality. If people believe certain foods have a benefit, they will seek them out.

For restaurants, berries are an appealing ingredient because of the powerful health halo for berries. Consumers believe in the health-promoting potential of berries. But berries are highly perishable, and no restaurant — especially ones recently closed due to COVID-19 — wants to waste money on ingredients that spoil before service.

Foodservice marketers must show restaurants how to use berries to drive demand for updated or new menu items. Smart marketers will provide marketing support for these menu items, including training for front line team members to promote these menu items to diners hungry for healthy menu options that deliver on great flavor.

Citrus Fruit: The Challenge and the Opportunity

Like berries, citrus is also known for being rich in vitamin C, but they have the operational benefit of longer shelf-life. However, citrus fruits require more labor. You can’t open a clamshell and pour out the citrus; you have to have team members in the kitchen who can safely yield a knife and do some prep. But given the fact that offering lemon wedges with iced tea and lime wedges with margaritas is easy, every restaurant — even ones with the most basic beverage program — should be serving citrus fruit.

Moving beyond to more impactful citrus programs, ones that drive volume and consumption, take a bit more work. Summer salad programs can benefit from citrus “supremes” that offer flavor balance to the vegetables, legumes, grains, proteins, and other components.

Dark Leafy Greens: The Challenge and the Opportunity

So, what’s the magic nutrient in dark leafy greens that consumers are seeking? You guessed it; it’s vitamin C. This category of produce contains so many items — from Romaine and spinach to Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and that God-awful kale — restaurants can feature year-round in both fresh and cooked formats across all day parts and menu parts. The opportunities for selling more dark green leafy vegetables in foodservice are limited by just one factor: a chef’s ability to make these items delicious and craveable.

One issue that always bothers me is the belief that to be healthy a dish has to be low-fat. Research doesn’t support that. In fact, research from the Mediterranean shows that the best health outcomes are in people who consume more fat, particularly unsaturated fat from plant-based sources. Using ingredients like extra virgin olive oil and nuts to add flavor and creamy richness to dark green leafy vegetables is a smart culinary strategy for making people love your food while also boosting their health.

Instead of trying to boost immunity, we need to boost flavor, enjoyment, and the happiness that comes from eating produce prepared in craveable ways.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative and a consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller