How to reduce your menu and cater to special diets

16 April 2021 by

While operators may be looking to reduce menus as we embark on the roadmap to reopening, the free-from and special diet market can't be ignored. Angela Frewin discovers the latest products and trends.

Diversity may be the name of the game in catering, but the need to accommodate an expanding range of free-from and special dietary requirements can place a "significant burden" on operators as they ease out of lockdown, warns Henry Seddon, managing director at Access Hospitality.

"As hospitality operators look to rationalise menus to reduce stock levels, minimise waste and control costs, their efforts are counter-balanced by the proliferation of special dietary requirements – covering everything from health, religious, cultural, nutritional, ethical and life choices in addition to allergy and intolerance needs," he explains.

So as caterers look to reduce their options, offering a wide range of special diet meals might be off the menu. "As a result of the impact of Covid-19, caterers must now ensure their menus work even harder," explains Gordon Lauder, managing director of frozen food distributor Central Foods. "They are including fewer products but ensuring these are suitable for a maximum number of customer dietary requirements and menu dishes. We are seeing ‘dual' dietary criteria becoming more important."

One such product is Central Foods' Menu-serve baked New York-style cheesecake (pictured top), which caters for both vegans and the gluten-intolerant.

Callebaut has conducted research that found 69% of diners would not be averse to a vegan dessert. The Belgian chocolate specialist has created new vegan recipes using its dark chocolate callets (such as beetroot cake, banoffee pie and flapjack bites) that can also be further adapted for other dietary requirements.

Pidy UK offers a range of sweet and neutral gluten-free tartlets, which can be used to create pies, quiches and sweet treats and avoid cross-contamination risks. "It's no secret that pastry is a key ingredient across all menus," explains commercial manager Fabien Levet.

Pidy UK gluten-free cases
Pidy UK gluten-free cases

"It is extremely beneficial to source a gluten-free version to make catering for special diets easier, as well as being part of an everyday menu."

Meanwhile Glebe Farms' PureOaty drinks can capture a wide special diet market as they are suitable for vegans, flexitarians, the lactose-intolerant and coeliacs. Made from gluten-free oats, the drink can be used to create sauces, cakes or coffees.

Children's menus also present a free-from growth opportunity. Young's Foodservice has introduced gluten- and dairy-free versions of its popular MSC-certified Alaska Pollock fishcakes and fish fingers, which are compliant with School Food Guidelines.

Tilda UK has launched its range of pure, wholegrain, peri peri and coconut basmati steamed rice range into foodservice and provided a range of school-friendly recipes. Head of foodservice Annette Coggins explains: "As rice is gluten-free, it is least likely to cause allergies, making it an ideal ingredient for the whole menu, from starters and sharers to mains and desserts."

Tilda sweet potato curry
Tilda sweet potato curry

Allergen alert

Studies show up to 20% of Britons have one or more food allergies, which can pose a real challenge to caterers. Any slip-ups could cause serious illness or even death, a damaged reputation and the possibility of unlimited fines or imprisonment.

"Post lockdown, resources are stretched to capacity, with restrictions on covers and skeleton staff," stresses John Wood, founder of Kitchen Cut. "With Natasha's Law being introduced later this year and tighter regulations around the disclosure of calorific information expected, it's imperative that management of allergen and nutritional information is automated and seamless."

Technology can play a key role in tracking ingredients, however recent research by Access Hospitality found that 71% of caterers still use time-consuming, error-prone manual processes to update allergens, which can leave recipes dangerously out of date.

Its Access Procure Wizard software includes recipe-costing and allergen-management solutions, feeding allergen and nutritional information from suppliers into back-of-house menu design and into EPoS hand-held devices, so restaurant staff can give guests transparency and reassurance.

Kitchen Cut's restaurant software automatically creates allergen tables and embeddable menus, which customers can browse and filter by dietary needs via operators' websites or by scanning a QR code at the table.

Kitchen Cut
Kitchen Cut

Meat- and care-free

Many are predicting the continued rise of vegan eating, with meat-reducing ‘flexitarians' a key future market. Ben Davy, culinary development chef at Meatless Farm, explains: "Meat-free food has gone beyond specialist vegan and vegetarian audiences – it's where ‘special diets' meets ‘mainstream'." And according to NPD Crest, the plant-based market nearly doubled under Covid, which has further sharpened the focus on personal and planetary health.

Protein alternatives that replicate the taste and texture of meat are the Holy Grail of plant-based product development. Innovative solutions include the pulled pork-style jackfruit and oyster mushroom stalks used in Wall's Pastry's vegan sausages and Green&Gold's Pulled Oats line of mince, meatballs and burgers made from blended oats, fava beans and peas.

Soya-based meat alternatives remain popular. Central Foods' soya-based KaterVeg burgers, meatballs, sausages and free-flow, no-shrinkage mince provides, says Lauder, a "simple menu swap in a wide range of favourite dishes, from spaghetti Bolognese, tacos and chilli, to lasagne, shepherd's pie and even pizza toppings".

However, Meatless Farm has replaced soya (a potential allergen) with pea protein in its sausages and burgers to achieve a meatier taste and texture, and plans to extend its line with a vegan chicken-style option.

Meatless Farm
Meatless Farm

Quorn has launched a vegan buttermilk-style chicken burger, exclusive to foodservice and hospitality, which Claire Roper, head of marketing and innovation foodservice, describes as "our biggest NPD launch for foodservice in five years".

"Meat-free needs to be exciting and full of flavour to capture imaginations. Lack of choice and innovative ideas frustrates consumers of plant-based foods when eating out of home," notes Phil Thornborrow, head of foodservice at Quorn.

Heura's high-protein, high-fibre vegan ‘chicken' chunks and strips are the only meat replacements that use olive oil (combined with sustainable soy extract, salt and spices) to create what Marc Coloma, founder of the Barcelona-based brand, describes as "the second generation of plant-based meat replacements, offering the sensorial experience of meat and outstanding nutritional options".

Ali O'Brien, commercial director at the Flava People, suggests its cold-pressed flavoured oils, glazes and marinades can be used to add excitement to meat-free dishes. Its plant-based oils are clean-label, sustainable and free of allergens, gluten and artificial additives.

In these straitened times, it may not be possible to please all of the people all of the time. However, as Levet points out, "When it comes to perfecting a free-from menu, the key is to offer a good selection of delicious, on-trend dishes in order to show that a conscious effort has been made to be inclusive of all customers' needs."

Natasha's Law

Natasha's Law – named after the teenager who died after eating unlabelled sesame in a Pret A Manger baguette – comes into force on 1 October, requiring operators to label all ingredients in food that is freshly made and prepacked on-site for direct sale and to highlight the presence of any of 14 potential allergens.

They are: egg; celery; crustaceans and molluscs; fish; gluten (cereals such as wheat, rye, barley and variants); lupin; milk/dairy; mustard; peanuts and tree nuts; sesame; soya; and sulphites/sulphur dioxide.

Breaking the mould

Healthcare meals provider Apetito is a world pioneer in texture-modified (TM) foods that reduce the risk of choking (and aspiration pneumonia) for the 16%-23% of the general population who struggle with dysphagia or difficulty swallowing.

These softer formulations – moulded to resemble regular meal components, such as carrots – aim to add dignity, enjoyment and improved nutrition to foods that have historically had somewhat less than appealing appearances.

The group has just launched two lines which aim to enhance the visual appeal of TM food, which Apetito dietician Emily Stuart declares is key to driving patient appetite. This includes 13 new products – including sausages, fish, chips, roast potatoes, and grill steaks – that utilise a new browning effect to replicate an appealing fried or crisped look.

Apetito has also developed moulded protein foods at IDDSi Level 5 (where level 7 is regular food and level 3 is liquidised), so they too look like regular meals.

"To our knowledge, no other company in the world has been able to create an authentic, browning enhancement for TM, or been able to secure moulded protein for IDDSi Level 5 meals," says Stuart.

Serve with flying colours

Juggling free-from, plant-based, meat-based and allergen-free dishes creates a dilemma for operators: how to serve food that needs to be cooked separately without having to invest in costly new equipment and without slowing speed of service?

Welbilt has taken inspiration from food-prep cross-contamination protocols to make separating menu items easy for kitchen staff. The colour-coded cooking trays and liners, available with its Merrychef Eikon e2s small high-speed oven, allow caterers to cook vegetarian or meat-based dishes one after the other without having to clean down the equipment, explains Steve Hemsil, sales director for the UK and Ireland.

Colours include blue, red and green (ideal for vegan or veggie meals) and Hemsil suggests using the new purple option to flag up allergy-free meals.




The Flava People

Glebe Farm









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