May 20, 2016

Managing health food trends

 As a qualified chef and nutritionist with a degree in health promotion, I meet many health conscious people. There are those with serious food allergies who’d love to eat out often, if there were more places serving food they could safely eat. Then there are regular healthy people focussed on healthy choices, even when out.

Emerging consumer trends show a new paradigm being created. People are now asking questions about their food – where it comes from, the ‘food miles’ its done, about the animal husbandry practices and chemicals used, if ingredients are genetically modified – the whole ‘paddock to plate’ story. Along side this, perhaps a reason for the trend, there are more people with food allergies and intolerances than ever before.

If you want to be a savvy café owner, you can’t ignore these customers and the trends they’re setting.

The myriad of food issues can be daunting for café owners, so I’ll explain some of the most common ones, along with some tips for dealing with them.

 Coeliac disease is when a person’s immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Eating gluten causes damage to the small intestine, a very painful condition that may be life threatening – unless a strict gluten-free diet is followed.

 A food allergy is when a person’s immune system reacts to a food protein of some kind – with some having such an allergic reaction to many different proteins. Foods most likely to cause allergic reactions are eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, sesame, soy and wheat. Mild to moderate reactions include hives and / or welts, swelling of face, lips and or eyes, abdominal pain and vomiting.

An anaphylactic reaction is the most severe of all reactions to food proteins, requiring immediate lifesaving medication. People prone to anaphylaxis often carry an Epi-pen – to inject themselves (or their children) in an emergency. Severe reactions include swelling of tongue, swelling and tightness in throat, difficulty breathing or talking, dizziness and collapsing, pale and floppy body (in young children).

A food intolerance is an adverse reaction, deemed harmless and annoying with symptoms that include bloating, cramps, headaches and skin irritation.

 The good news for a café owner is that a person with food issues will generally let you know what they can’t eat. Then it’s up to you and your staff to be knowledgeable and supportive, reassuring them the food you serve is safe for them to eat.

It’s simply a matter of setting a few written protocols and implementing an education program for your chefs/cooks as well as your wait staff, particularly those taking orders.

The protocols needed for Coeliac disease and anaphylaxis are a little complex but crucial – to prevent cross contamination with the reactive foods.

You can start by going to for the Australian gluten free standards. Once it’s demonstrated you’ve put the right protocols in place, you can use the GF logo on your menu. There’s also help available at the Anaphylaxis Association of Australia.

Here are some practical tips …

  • Have a separate area in the kitchen to prepare gluten free or allergy free foods and ensure everyone knows about it.
  • Use separate colour-coded boards for gluten free, egg free, nut free etc. The extent you will take this to will depend on the foods in your kitchen.
  • Have separate knives and utensils for gluten free foods or allergy free foods.
  • Use a separate toaster for gluten free breads. An inexpensive but durable domestic toaster can do the job.
  • Write a separate menu with meal options using similar food groups and ingredients to the meals on the standard menu. Put one laminated copy up in the separate area in the kitchen and another for wait staff to use. Having a few spares for customers to take would be good customer service.
  • Educate a couple of dedicated chefs/cook, willing to learn about gluten free/ allergy free foods and a couple of wait staff on rotating shifts who can inform and reassure customers.

The serious stuff aside, here’s some information about the things your trend-setting, health-conscious customers might be looking out for on your menu …

 Organic foods are those produced under strict guidelines set by a number of certifying bodies. Many health conscious customers love organic whole foods.

Genetically modified foods (GM foods) are foods that have had their genes altered and cross-bred with another food or plant gene. And health conscious consumers avoid them. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) has a section dedicated to genetically modified foods and updates on the issues surrounding them.

Sugar-free options are becoming a must with processed sugar hailed as the ‘biggest of all the baddies’ in health circles – the cause of an enormous range of conditions and diseases from obesity and tooth decay to cancer and diabetes.

Dairy-free options are preferred by a customer lacking the enzymes to break down the lactose in cow’s milk. Along with modified milks such a lactose free, there are soy, rice, goat, oat, almond, coconut and cashew milks to experiment with these days. Different ones will suit different recipes.

Gluten-free options that exclude products with wheat, barley, rye and oats are mainstream in good cafes and restaurants. You don’t have to make these yourself, as there are plenty of companies specialising in ready-made gluten free goodies as tasty alternatives. Some are designed to freeze well, so you can keep them on hand for when they’re needed.

Finally, some more tips …

  • Identify ‘dairy free’ or ‘gluten free’ menu items with acronyms DF and GF. These are well understood by those who need to know.
  • Start with the organic farmers markets if you’d like to research organic options. If you connect with a farmer directly, the cost will be lower and you are helping an Aussie farmer.
  • Reduce the amount of cane sugar. Substituting 1/3 or 1/2 of the sugar with rice syrup or maple syrup works well for some recipes, as does stevia, made from the leaves of a small plant containing lots of natural sweetness. Avoid corn syrup at all costs, however.
  • Train wait staff to be able to give accurate advice and make suggestions for health conscious customers. One nice thing to do is to remember return customers with food issues – in the same way you’d remember a regular customer’s favourite dish or coffee.
  • Offer seasonal Australian foods, including at least some organic options in your food and beverage mix and some light options such salads in summer, warm salads and soups in winter.
  • Get creative with the one bowl approach. For example, start with a base of freshly made organic stock topped with wholemeal noodles, lean meats and loads of vegetables topped with fresh herbs.
  • Have a decent children’s menu, full of good unprocessed foods rather than the all too common options that are making Australian kids addicted to bad fats and sugar. Consider portion sizes suitable children. Portions that are too large for their smaller tummies means their leftovers (with a percentage of your profit) goes in the bin.

It may cost more, but health conscious consumers are used to paying more for their food and are happy to pay the higher price when out – especially when they have serious food allergies. Trust me, as chef who suffers with food intolerances, being able to take a break for cooking and go out with friends is very rewarding, when I find a café or restaurant with nourishing and tasty food that’s safe for me to eat.

Tweaking your menu in response to consumer needs adds value to your business. If you always consider the customer’s point of view – by following the trends they set, and being passionate about addressing their needs with care and consistency, they will reward you with their loyalty and be your best allies in offering unsolicited praise and advertising what you’re about!

About the author:

Tracey is an experienced chef and nutritionist with a background in catering and event management. She is available to assist café owners with menu options that meet the emerging trends set by health conscious customers – as well as staff training. She also offers in-home cooking lessons for people with food allergies. Go to Email or call 0411 557 581.

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