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Away-from-home Foods
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A really fascinating and possibly very important report that was solicited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been received. It is called the Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity.

What makes the report fascinating is that it is the first one I’ve ever seen that focuses on away-from-home foods. As the FDA explains, this is a very important category:

The impact of away-from-home foods is significant. Americans spend approximately 46 percent of their food budget on food prepared away from home and take in 32 percent of their calories from such foods.

The report looked at the obesity problem, recognized the significance of the category and came up with the following 13 recommendations. I give a little comment under each recommendation:

Recommendation 2.1: Shift the emphasis of marketing. The marketing of lower-calorie and less-calorie-dense foods should increase, accompanied by a reduction in marketing that highlights higher-calorie (or calorie-dense) foods or encourages large portions.

This is basically challenging the industry to find a value proposition appealing to consumers other than portion-size. In other words, right now the way many foodservice establishments sell food is heavily focused on providing consumers with more. The whole SuperSize phenomena is basically a way of telling the consumer that they can get more food at a lower cost per ounce and thus get a “better deal” but, of course, if that deal will make you obese, it is not a “better deal” at all. How can the industry address consumers without this traditional crutch?

Recommendation 2.2: Update marketing standards. Industry, government, health and nutrition experts, consumer representatives, and other stakeholders should work together to review and update standards for marketing away-from-home foods to children.

Politically the battle is brewing on marketing to children. Does it really make sense for McDonalds to tell children that if they want a toy, they better buy a Happy Meal. If the child eats a Fruit and Walnut salad, he can’t get the toy? Why do so many kid’s menus have no healthy options at all?

Recommendation 2.3: Promote low-calorie-dense dietary patterns. Strengthen and/or create education and promotion programs regarding away-from-home foods that promote the consumption of fruits, vegetables, no- and low-fat milk and milk products, whole grains, and foods low in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids, as recommended by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Here the report recommends looking at programs such as 5 a Day and expanding them dramatically in this space. Same with efforts such as Milk Matters and Powerful Bones, Powerful Girls program, all focused on getting three daily servings of non-fat or low-fat dairy. Something not even on the table in the industry, the plan suggests looking at a national matching fund marketing program for fruits and vegetables. Many industry programs get support at retail because there are dedicated people working on commodity-specific areas. In foodservice, there is nobody who specifically is charged with caring if people eat more fruits and vegetables or more milk. The report is basically saying this lack of implementation of national dietary goals at foodservice needs to be addressed.

Recommendation 2.4: Promote enhanced “lifestyle education” programs. Use a combination of social marketing campaigns and consumer education programs to provide “healthy lifestyle” education to help individuals eat more healthfully in today’s food environment. Existing campaigns and programs could be enhanced or, as necessary, new ones could be created.

Once again, we look at the “more food” value proposition and look for ways to get away from it. But this time, we approach the issue from a societal promotion effort. Can we change the social expectations from simply wanting “more food” to wanting “better quality” food? Can we promote an energy balance concept, where people understand they have to take in calories in sync with what they expend?

Recommendation 2.5: Review the effectiveness of existing programs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA should, in partnership together, coordinate a comprehensive survey and analysis of existing government-sponsored education and social marketing campaigns related to managing weight gain and reducing obesity in the context of away-from-home foods.

This is a kind of a governmental inventory-taking. What is the government doing now? Is it working? What can be done to make it more effective?

Recommendation 2.6: Improve government access to data on consumer behavior and attitudes. Federal agencies should act immediately to increase the access of government researchers and policymakers to syndicated commercial databases. Key agencies should establish recurring line items in their respective budgets, thereby ensuring continual and timely access to the needed commercial data sets.

Inside baseball for the government in terms of gathering better data and better data sharing.

Recommendation 2.7: Ensure public availability of information. A means must be developed for continually improving the publicly available knowledge base regarding consumer interests, attitudes, and behaviors regarding away-from-home foods.

A lot of times, the government gets data under a non-disclosure agreement. This is saying that more effective ways of getting data out to the public needs to be found.

Recommendation 3.1: Promote the wider inclusion in foodservice of less-calorie-dense menu items and calorie-sparing cooking techniques that are widely accepted by consumers and that take into account constraints on operators.

This is really the crux of it. They want the foodservice industry to be conscious of the calories in each meal served. They want the industry to serve smaller portions of less calorie-dense foods. How to achieve this? Well partly it is the marketing shifts and societal education shifts mentioned earlier, which will make it possible, but also the report focuses on the whole supply chain working together toward this area. This includes making sure that evaporated fat-free milk, lower-fat cheeses and precut vegetables are all available in foodservice sizes.

Recommendation 3.2: Foodservice providers should develop and promote portion-size, plate composition, and menu-pairing options that help consumers in their efforts to manage their energy intake.

Here the suggestions are pretty specific:

  • Reduce total calories in mixed dishes by combining moderate reductions in calorie density with changes in portion size.
  • Retool menu items to provide lower-calorie-dense choices.
  • For sandwiches, offer more fruit and/or vegetable options than just lettuce and tomato. For example, offer roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, cucumbers, etc.
  • Provide more options and promote meal bundles with fruits and vegetables (including salads), while maintaining traditional side options as well.
  • Offer several portion sizes of each menu item.
  • Adopt approaches to support portion-size reduction and/or curtail emphasis on “bigger means better” messages.

Recommendation 3.3: Foodservice providers should develop, make available, and promote beverage options that help consumers to reduce calorie intake.

Basically apply the same thought process to beverages.

Recommendation 3.4: Industry and academia should conduct — collaboratively, if possible — research on the topics and questions listed in Chapter 3. In addition, a specific scientific survey should be conducted about the experiences of operators and restaurateurs in developing menu items that could aid in weight management.

More research, this time on operator experiences in doing all this.

Recommendation 4.1: Away-from-home food establishments should provide consumers with calorie information in a standard format that is easily accessible and easy to use.

A proposal for providing calorie counts for away-from-home food.

Recommendation 4.2: Research by multiple sectors should be conducted on how consumers use nutrition information for away-from-home foods; how this information affects their calorie intake at that venue; how and why nutrition information affects operators’ decisions, costs, and revenues; and unanticipated consequences.

A suggestion to study the nutrition information issue.

The gist of all this is that with food away from home accounting for a third of all calories consumed, no public health policy designed to address obesity can be successful if it doesn’t address this area.

The report lays an intellectual groundwork for what we can expect to be years of battle to bring the foodservice world into the web of the public health authorities.

It seems that this report is worth reading because the subject won’t go away.

My sense, though, is the report tends to overweigh the willfulness of the industry and underweigh the degree to which the industry responds to consumer preference.

The report acknowledges the issue, and thus the proposals to change societal values. But there is no reason to think such campaigns will be very successful, certainly not in the short or medium run.

So we are left in a dilemma over how to proceed.

But as food away from home grows in importance, the industry will find more and more pressure to be a proactive partner in solving social problems related to food such as obesity.

Get the complete report here.

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