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Menu trends: How restaurants can embrace functional food


The functional and colorful Dragon Bowl at Vitality Bowls.

Today, a healthy lifestyle is about more than opting for salad over fries or cutting that breakroom donut in half. As consumers become more educated about what food does to their bodies, functional foods, those with a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition, are creeping out of the holistic healing blogosphere and into the mainstream.

The growth of functional foods is driven by people looking for health benefits, not fewer calories, and that’s a key distinction. By adding ginger, functional foodies hope for less joint inflammation. By eating salmon or other sources of fatty acids, they hope for better cholesterol. It’s less about six-pack abs and more about avoiding chronic disease.

“It turns out, 80 percent of chronic disease is actually caused by bad food,” said Adam Southam, the founder of functional food consultancy MyFormulary Health. “That’s the bad news, but the good news is that 80 percent of chronic diseases can be prevented by food.”

This idea isn’t new. Who hasn’t seen Jamie Lee Curtis slinging probiotic yogurt? What is new is the option to get such nutrients at the center of the plate. Vitality Bowls is a franchise built around functional foods, with menu items such as the Immunity Bowl and the Super Food Bowl packed with the likes of bee pollen, cacao, honey and acai fruit—one of the most widely known functional foods—as a base.

“When we started with our acai bowls, it wasn’t a meal replacement, but all the nutrients you need for the day,” said Uriah Blum, VP of operations at Vitality Bowls. “These are things that the body wants and needs, so if we can combine them all it creates this amazing meal and you feel good about what you eat.”

Blum said Vitality Bowls makes those meals available without being as verbose about the medicinal aspects as those in the blogosphere. “We don’t make a big push in your face like we’re medicine. Today’s consumer is a little savvier and more educated,” said Blum. “I think people are looking at what they eat much more.”

Linh Aven

 B.Good head chef Linh Aven says they don’t see many customers demanding functional foods. But providing healthier options gives functional foodies the choice.

The company does talk up specific ingredients. Though the buzz around acai might have reached most consumers, more exotic foods are still unknown.

“The average consumer will come in and ask, ‘What is spirulina and all these things?’ We have documentation with bullet points and stuff to memorize before they start,” said Blum of staff training. “Then, we start with one or two ingredients. And every customer that comes in, we’ll say, ‘I want you to tell them about goji berries.’”

Sourcing functional ingredients is getting easier as big-name distributors carry more of them, but certain items are still a challenge—and more costly—to find.

“Finding cost reductions is important, but quality is equally important,” said Blum. “In the lab we do a cost analysis, we need to make sure things stay affordable. Our food is not on the cheap end, so we found that middle ground.” The Immunity and Super Food bowls cost more than $13 in most markets.

At B.Good, a healthy fast-food franchise, the idea of eating something to promote liver health, for example, is not front and center. And that may be a key for brands looking to bring in more functional foods—simply make them available.

“Medicine has a negative connotation, and many functional food benefits are not backed by peer-reviewed science. So rather than marketing ‘food as medicine,’ we emphasize that we serve food that’s great tasting, but you can also feel good about eating,” said Linh Aven, executive chef of the chain. “We’re not seeing an overwhelming number of people ask about specific health benefits just yet, but that’s not to say it’s not on the horizon.”

Southam, meanwhile, offered this advice to franchises: “You don’t want to use the word ‘diet,’ that’s a kiss of death,” he said. “The key is to figure out something small” employees can talk about.

“There’s the restaurants that make this painful, saying, ‘That will cost you $2.’ You’ve got an opportunity. From what we understand today, lifelong consumer value is everything,” he continued. “There are endless ways to rationalize why a restaurant should offer some of these things.”

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