In week three of Caterer‘s Healthy Eating Month, our focus is on feeding the workers. Nic Paton examines the move by contract caterers and suppliers to back a Government initiative to improve nutrition in the workplace
In his classic 1973 film Sleeper, Woody Allen wakes up 200 years into the future and asks for wheat germ, organic honey and tigers' milk for breakfast. His doctors later chuckle at his naivety, with one explaining: "Those are the charmed substances that years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties." His colleague asks incredulously: "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?"
"Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true," the first doctor replies.
If only it were true, but with the waists of British workers getting wider each year, employers are recognising that they - and their caterers - are on the front line of the Government's efforts to curb the nation's growing obesity problem. Whether we like it or not most of us spend more hours at work than we do at home. With fewer people cooking from scratch at home, the workplace is often now the one place we get a hot, balanced meal during the day. And as work patterns become more flexible and varied, so workers require food at different times of the day - including breakfast - and delivered in different ways.
Against this backdrop, the "big five" of contract catering - Compass, Sodexo, Aramark, Elior and BaxterStorey - and suppliers Brakes and 3663 signed up in January to a series of commitments agreed with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to provide healthier workplace meals, in particular to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat levels in everyday dishes (see panel, right). This pledge is seen as a sign of how seriously the issue is being taken in both government and catering circles.
"People are becoming more aware of what's going on and more concerned about what's in their food, and that does impact on their eating habits," agrees Gavin Hands, marketing manager at 3663. "Part of the challenge for caterers is to provide food that's healthy but still convenient. The average lunch ‘hour' is now more like 27 minutes or even less. Often people are just grazing throughout the day rather than having a formal meal. So it's not just about providing a healthy option, but providing healthy options throughout the day."
The best approach, Hands suggests, is to come at it in a balanced way. "Don't suddenly switch over or restrict the less healthy food. You need to offer the healthy option alongside the less healthy one. You can't just offer a bowl of salad as a healthy option," he adds.
To this end, the company launched its "Positive steps towards a healthier future" campaign two-and-a-half years ago to highlight healthier options available to caterers. Some 300 products now have icons on them to show they're healthier, such as being fat-free or low in fat, sugar or salt. But it's not just about changing the product within the supply chain, it's also about changing how the whole point of sale is presented and marketed, Hands suggests. "It might be about having a bowl of fruit at the point of sale that people can grab from rather than a chocolate bar on the way out," he adds.
And caterers can't assume that just because they're sticking to FSA guidelines that it's job done, agrees Vicky La Trobe, marketing director for business and dining at Aramark. "It's also about understanding what workers want and providing them with informed choices. In our experience, trends indicate that workers want a high-quality range of sandwiches, similar to the high street offering," she says. "The key is influencing positive dietary habits and we've achieved this by listening to what they want and the demands placed upon them," she adds.
At Compass, a 200-strong range of low-calorie, low-fat and low-salt meals called Balanced Choices was launched three years ago. This was extended to 1,200 products earlier this year and now includes dishes such as Moroccan chicken, chicken saag curry and roasted salmon niçoise. "The challenge when it comes to healthy food is that consumers often have great intentions in terms of what they think they want to eat," says marketing director John Pain. "Yet it's still less than 20% when it comes to purchasing. So the issue is ensuring we're still delivering great taste."
The company also has a Steamplicity range of meals that can be steam-cooked and so produced more healthily. Then there's its new Wild Greens range of salads launched this month in about 1,500 locations. These include a goats' cheese tart that comes with iceberg, mixed leaves, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, grated carrot, mustard cress, red onion, black olives, French dressing and chives. The company has also recently revamped and refocused its 10 core recipes and has developed high-quality point-of-sale material to go with some of its meals.
"Because people's eating habits are changing and they're moving away from formal meals and more towards grazing, there's a responsibility for caterers to provide a broader range of menus, lighter choices, healthier options and snacks," Pain adds.
Of course, employers are not doing all this for philanthropic reasons alone. There's growing recognition that managing the health and wellbeing of the workers in your organisation rather than focusing solely on those who are off sick is a good thing in its own right. Healthier workers, the argument goes, are brighter and more bushy-tailed and therefore more productive, creative and - because they feel more valued - engaged in their work.
The key to January's agreement with the FSA was not so much that caterers were signalling some radical change of tack - for most of them it was simply a case of reiterating what they already had in place - but the fact that they were publicly putting healthy food on the consumer radar, argues Sodexo corporate affairs director Phil Hooper.
Often what's needed is little more than tweaks to turn an unhealthy dish into something much more healthy, such as changing from tuna in brine to tuna in spring water or going for reduced-salt baked beans, he says. On Sodexo's salad bars, for example, three-quarters of its salads are now undressed.
The next stage, Hooper argues, is to move from changing things behind the scenes with suppliers to getting out there and taking the message to customers. This has to include educating catering managers about better menu planning, more point-of-sale material and table talkers, and producing consumer information. "We're not saying people can't be unhealthy but it's about offering choice. A lot of our customers come into our restaurant every day and, of course, they're not going to buy a salad every time. Our mantra is that there has to be a choice," Hooper stresses.
Convenience "grab and go" food needn't be unhealthy, emphasises Tim Hall, chief executive of City-based "eco-eaterie" chain Pod. The company makes a point of sourcing only fresh, local ingredients and, in particular, encouraging stressed City workers to eat more nutritiously and healthily. "A lot of our City customers complain that the food in their canteens is unhealthy. Whatever steps caterers may be taking, they're often not being done with enough integrity. For example, you might get a low-fat sandwich, but then it will be on white bread," he points out.
Education of chefs and managers is relatively easy, argues William Baxter, deputy chief executive of BaxterStorey. Changing customers' eating habits will inevitably take longer and need much more than just leadership from contract caterers, he says.
Yet if the nation's love of unhealthy foods is to be tackled, caterers and hospitality firms will have an important role to play, both behind the scenes and upfront. In future, predicts Hands, the debate could even move on from the need to take things out - such as fats, sugar and salt - to the possibility of adding ingredients that are beneficial to workers' health. "You could, for example, be looking at cholesterol-lowering yogurts or something with a special additive in it. So I think over time we may be moving away from ‘free-from' or ‘reduced' or ‘low' or whatever, to products that have actual attributes within them," he argues.
With fewer people cooking from scratch at home, the workplace is often now the one place employees get a hot, balanced meal during the day
Healthier workers tend to be brighter and more bushy-tailed and therefore more productive, creative and - because they feel more valued - engaged in their work
The healthier meals pledge
In January the "big five" contract caterers - Compass, Sodexo, Aramark, Elior and BaxterStorey - and suppliers Brakes and 3663 signed up to commitments and ways they were going to monitor progress with the FSA within a number of key areas.
To cite the example of one, BaxterStorey, these included:
- To suggest all clients remove salt cellars, and to do so where the client agrees (done by March 2008).
- To ensure supply chain team and operations managers also undergo nutrition training alongside chefs.
- With key suppliers and the FSA, to develop a guide of nutritional criteria for each product category.
- To identify 10 grocery product types that are bought the most and identify a specific product that meets the FSA's salt target, and provide that list to all chefs and chef-managers.
- To compile a list of 10 reduced-fat products that can be substituted for the regular product in recipes.
- To produce guidance notes for chefs and chef-managers on the meat they buy to ensure it's UK-sourced, lean cuts and mince with less than 10% fat where possible.
- To incorporate healthy buying practices within its chef's diploma and healthy catering provision within its culinary arts programme.
- To ensure all chefs have been trained on healthier menus, including buying lower-fat, salt and sugar ingredients, planning healthier menus, healthier cooking practices, labelling and allergies.
- To design a good practice guide to be incorporated into the existing restaurant guide.
- To ensure a healthier breakfast option is available every day.
- To ensure fresh fruit and fruit-based desserts are available.
- To ensure healthy drinks are always available.
- On salad bars, to leave salads undressed and make a low-fat dressing available.
- To have low-fat mayonnaise and spreads and wholemeal breads and rolls available in sandwich bars.
- To ensure three types of vegetables are available with hot meals.
- To use complex carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, pasta, cereals, pulses, grains) on menus.
- To have three customer promotions during 2008, including:
- Easy ways to reduce salt
- Healthy snacking
- Healthy five: buy a piece of fruit as part of your breakfast on four consecutive days and get a fifth free.
- Buy a healthy choice and receive a 30% discount at the till.
- The commitments can be viewed here.
Mitie moves first
Healthy food is just one element of a wider employee wellbeing package being put in place by contract caterer Mitie Catering Services for its clients, in a move believed to be a first for a caterer.
In March, the company launched its City Living Active service, extending its City Living concept which already offered staff restaurant foods selected and advertised for their therapeutic qualities. The concept was piloted last month and the findings are being collated. If deemed a success, it will be rolled out from June.
Under City Living Active, employees can join a health programme ranging in price from about £40 to nearly £400, which includes corporate membership rates with gym chain Fitness First, online menu planning, downloadable MP3 workouts, personal training sessions and one-to-one nutrition advice.
One of the key challenges with any healthy food offer is to give your chefs the freedom to create healthy foods while at the same time keeping a tight control on the cooking methods and ingredients used, argues managing director Anthony Bennett.
While there's demand for healthier options - with one Mitie-run restaurant recently reporting a 12% uplift in sales after introducing the range - workers need to be treated as grown-ups, he stresses.
Taking the healthy eating message out of the kitchen
Caterer Charlton House's Well Being, Being Well initiative, which was launched last year, is trying to take the healthy-eating message out of the kitchen and direct to workers. Its website, www.wellbeingbeingwell.co.uk, which is a publicly accessible site, includes information on "super foods", shows what Charlton House is doing about healthier options and features recipes created by its Michelin-starred director of food David Cavalier that link back to the natural foods highlighted on the site.
For example, under "seaweed" there are explanations of some of the different types, their health benefits and how they can be used or eaten. Then there's the recipe for salmon with fennel, cucumber and seaweed salad plus a recipe for ebi isobe yaki, or prawns wrapped in seaweed.
The idea, explains Caroline Fry, joint managing director, is simply to encourage people to try healthier foods, and perhaps experiment with ingredients they may not have previously thought of, to be informative and educational and to help people to be both more healthy and eat more healthily at work.
"People don't want to eat beetroot every day or they will go pink, so people need to be able to set healthy food within its context. It's about raising awareness and making it fun," Fry says.
The site has also been promoted internally by placing promotional business cards and table talkers throughout its staff restaurants nationwide.
"We're trying to say that all food, if it's fresh, prepared well and cooked well, is good for you," she adds.