A new US Food & Drug Administration report could spell market opportunities for healthy ingredients as it aims to heighten awareness of the nutritious potential for foods eaten or prepared away from the home.
In an effort to lessen the social cost of widespread obesity in the nation, the FDA is now targeting the away-from-home industry as a prospective source of low-calorie healthy food. Sixty-five percent of Americans are overweight and 30 percent are obese, says the report, resulting in thousands of deaths and around $117 billion in health care expenses each year.
The report, "Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity", contracted by the FDA, provides recommendations from industry, government, civic sector organizations and academia on influencing consumer behaviour, providing consumers with nutrition information and increasing the availability of lower-calorie products and menu items.
According to the FDA's definition, away-from-home foods include restaurant and take-away food as well as prepared-food from counters at grocery stores, institutional foodservice settings and other outlets.
However the National Restaurant Association argues that 'away-from-home foods' could comprise other foods besides those served in restaurants, possibly including packaged foods.
Market researchers in the health foods sector have been advising food manufacturers to consider convenience as a means to encouraging consumption, since so many people lead on-the-go lifestyles and may not have time for nutritious home-cooked meals or snacks.
Indeed 46 percent of household food budgets in the US are now spent on goods prepared outside the home, according to the FDA. Because per capita spending is projected to rise by 18 percent at full-service restaurants and 6 percent at quick-service establishments between 2000 and 2020, the government has little choice but to stimulate healthy choices for away-from-home meal and snack options.
Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which made labeling of packaged foods compulsory in 1993, away-from-home foods are currently exempt from any nutrition labeling requirements if they don't make specific nutrition claims.
Starting in 2001 however, the US surgeon general began calling for an increase in nutrition information for foods eaten and prepared away from home. Then in 2004, the FDA's Working Group on Obesity issued the report Calories Count, which asked the restaurant industry to launch a "nationwide, voluntary, and point-of-sale nutrition information campaign for consumers".
In a response to the recent FDA report, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said restaurants have been keeping pace with consumer demand for healthy options as it arises. "Restaurants are seeing more diet-specific requests, such as lower calorie, low-fat, and fiber-rich items and have provided these items on menus based on this growing consumer demand," reads the statement.
This move towards healthy ingredients in restaurants might lead the way towards partnerships between the restaurant and healthy foods industries. The FDA report points out that a key marketing and sales outcome of mandatory nutrition labeling for packaged foods was greater market share for nutritionally improved products.
For example, the report cites that between 1991 and 1995 the number of lower fat cheese products on the market tripled and the number of lower fat cookies went from zero to 15 percent market share.
"In a similar fashion, nutrition labeling on menus and menu boards may spur nutritional improvements in restaurant foods," concludes the report, and there could be scope for healthy ingredients to step in and fill some of the nutrition gap.
However, the report surmised that providing these foods does not guarantee they will be good sellers. "Foods that are conducive to healthy energy intake are of no benefit if consumers do not opt for them," reads the report, which was inconclusive on how to best garner consumer acceptance for healthy foods. "Evidence regarding how and why consumers use nutrition information is limited."
The restaurant industry may be slower to act in the interests of the public good as it voices it is taking too much blame for burgeoning waistlines.