With legions of consumers claiming to aspire to eat meals that offer greater health benefits, Produce Business UK examines how the foodservice industry can shape its offer and preparation techniques to get more fresh produce on our dinner plates. At the same time, we ask the sector what it believes are the obstacles standing in the way of greater fruit and vegetable usage and consumption at a foodservice level
Back in May, the Discover Cornwall Food & Drink Guide released a list of the nation’s favourite British foods. While Cornish pasties inevitably featured on the list, one of the most interesting aspects – from a fresh produce point of view – was the presence of fruits and vegetables in so many of the leading dishes, whether that be strawberries and cream, a Ploughman’s lunch or cucumber sandwiches.
What was arguably less encouraging was the prominence of less healthy foods, such as fried fish and chips, ham, eggs and chips, and gravy with (you’ve guessed it) chips.
Not that this is bad news for the potato industry, of course, but it begs the question – can consumers be tempted to try healthier options and, where possible, replace less healthy foods or even traditional ingredients with fresh produce-based alternatives?
Several companies in the foodservice sector are attempting to find out.
Healthier, alternative solutions
One such company is Cheltenham-based Creed Foodservice, a business that supplies meals to a range of sectors, including schools, garden centres and care homes. Under the supervision of resident chef Rob Owen, Creed offers a variety of menu options based on its customer needs that typically vary from one client to the next.
That said, Creed’s marketing manager, Holly Earl, emphasises that the menus are still “hugely influenced” by the seasonality and availability of UK-grown produce. Nonetheless, menu contents are being shaped to an ever greater degree by demand for healthier and gluten-free options, and Earl says the firm expects this trend to develop further.
“Consumers are seeking healthy and balanced options when eating out, and this applies across all areas,” she says. “Recently, the popularity of gluten-free products and dishes has also crept into the healthy-eating category, and many consumers are now choosing gluten-free as a lifestyle choice for its perceived health benefits even if they aren’t gluten intolerant.”
Many of Creed’s customers now offer healthier and gluten-free options, and Earl says the versatile cauliflower is even featuring on many menus as an alternative to pizza bases and rice. “No doubt in the coming months we’ll see more traditional carbohydrates substituted with perceived healthier options such as less conventional vegetables,” she says.
Like Creed, Fresh Direct is making increasing use of cauliflower, according to the firm’s head of food development, Duncan Parsonage. “Cauliflower is still very much on the rise; roasted whole or blitzed into crumbs,” he says.
Parsonage agrees there has been a shift in the foodservice sector towards using fresher, vegetable-based alternatives in traditional British recipes, partly as a result of greater allergen awareness and a desire to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Examples cited by Parsonage include: vegetable fries made from celeriac, sweet potato, pumpkin, or even cassava or avocado, and mashed root vegetables as a substitute for potato atop a cottage or shepherd’s pie.
Lettuce leaves are also increasingly commonplace as a replacement for a burger bun, he claims, as well as leafy vegetables or lettuce as a ‘wrap’ substitute for those avoiding eating gluten in meals like sandwiches.
Parsonage adds that spiralised vegetables are also taking retail by storm, while avocados are appearing as a healthy ingredient alternative or addition to smoothies and ice creams, and increasingly available in dishes at trendy breakfast joints.
New product developments gaining traction with consumers are also helping to put more fresh produce on plates. Parsonage suggests the rise of the ‘Nutribullet’ smoothie maker is particularly noteworthy, which he says allows consumers to replace breakfast or lunch with a fruit and vegetable-based drink.
Drying, smoking and pickling fruits and vegetables are other perfect ways of packing more punch into a dish, suggests Parsonage, while purées or crushed items can and are being used to replace heavy, rich sauces.
Obstacles to greater usage
Despite the evident progress, Parsonage believes there remain untapped opportunities for even more fresh produce to be used in popular meals by focusing on people’s desire to eat fewer carbohydrates and the need to address the obesity epidemic in the UK. However, he concedes that eating habits will be slow to change.
Added to that, although Parsonage says Fresh Direct is striving to feature more fresh produce in its meal options, he admits that preparation time and the intricacies of turning a more challenging vegetable into something special can sometimes be a barrier.
“We try to offer our customers as much variety as possible, but sometimes the operational issues of getting salsify, globe artichokes or baby pineapples to the table makes it impossible,” he says.
Regardless, Parsonage adds that Fresh Direct is closely watching for the emergence of new ingredients on menus, such as the recent renaissance undergone by kale.
Indeed, new product development has a hugely influential role to play in inspiring chefs to feature a “humble vegetable” on their menus. “Sometimes it’s as simple as a new way of preparation, such as spiralised veg, or chargrilling a product that you wouldn’t normally think of chargrilling,” notes Parsonage.
Earl at Creed also accepts that work still needs to be done to increase the overall amount of fresh produce being used at a foodservice level. However, she cites the challenges of kitchen storage and wastage as two obstacles to achieving this goal. To overcome the latter, she believes innovation in frozen vegetable solutions could be helpful; potentially contributing to reducing wastage and controlling portion sizes.
Storage solutions aside, Earl argues that further raising consumers’ awareness of seasonal produce to create a demand in the ‘out-of-home’ industry, would be “fantastic” for the health of both the nation and the foodservice sector.
For his part, Parsonage believes fresh produce is already gaining real momentum within the UK foodservice sector, particularly among some of the country’s top chefs who are making seasonal highlights the centre of the plate.
Good examples of this trend, says Parsonage, are top-end restaurants such as London establishments Lyle’s, Fera, Grain Store and St. John that emphasise the British provenance of their ingredients and focus on fresh produce.
Open door for excitement and communication
Consumers themselves are demanding more information about new trends in food development, according to national sales director at Bradford-based Swithenbank Fresh, John Connolly, who says the firm has reacted to enormous changes in demand over the past decade.
“You only have to look at how our shopping habits have changed over the last few years, to appreciate the scale of these changes,” he explains. “Ten years ago, a typical large supermarket would have roughly divided its aisles, one for fresh, one for chilled, three for frozen and one for ambient. Now, fresh is their window, the fresh and chilled category have merged, and even if consumers don’t buy fresh, they want their chilled products to look fresh.”
Connolly believes Swithenbank’s customers have become more knowledgeable. Now, he claims, salads, fruits, leaf mixes, healthy-eating options and provenance are all high on the agenda for consumers.
To exploit this demand, Connolly suggests the foodservice sector as a whole needs to make fresh produce more exciting and better communicate with end consumers about topics such as seasonality and why eating a product at its seasonal best should deliver a better taste.
“In a society that buys most of its product from supermarkets, the concept of eating with the seasons has been lost to a generation that expects strawberries in winter,” he argues.
“We eat with our eyes and we live in a fast-paced society. The health factor is increasingly important to a growing proportion of people who want to eat well and want to be enticed by great looking fresh food.”
Consumers, Connolly argues, want to have exposure to products they see used on celebrity chef programmes and they want their food to be fun and exciting. Although people do not often eat as much fresh produce as they should, Connolly believes most would like to consume more fruits and vegetables, and aspire to a healthy diet.
“The fresh industry is pushing against an open door, we just need to make sure our solutions are relevant to the changes in eating habits,” he concludes.