by Hilary Oliver
You see them. From behind the deli counter, you watch ill shoppers pick out supplements to boost immunity. She is dabbing her nose with a handkerchief, his eyes are red and sagging. Maybe they're stopping by on the way home from work, or on the way to pick up a child at school. Wherever they're heading, they're likely in a hurry. And it's hard to eat healthfully in a hurry. With the sniffles season just around the corner, your foodservice department can be a valuable tool for customers in their quest to stay healthy.
From fine-dining establishments to frozen-yogurt shops, retailers are tapping into shoppers' desires for foods with immune-enhancing properties. Crafting healthy offerings with ingredients like shiitake mushrooms and probiotics, a growing number of establishments are even drawing specific attention to their immunity-boosting ingredients with information placards and special icons. By carefully selecting ingredients and preparing them thoughtfully, you can turn your own prepared-foods department into an oasis of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for shoppers on the go. A little marketing can help shoppers make the food-immune connection, but use caution because it's easy to push the limits of legal health claims.
With functional foods marketing on the rise and magazines ripe with superfood stories, consumers are increasingly making connections between what they eat and how they feel. "They've heard of the concept, but I don't think they know which foods are best," says Dave Grotto, R.D., a former natural products retailer. That's where you come in.
James Rouse, N.D., who helped launch the nutrition drink mix1, has some simple suggestions for making over your foodservice department. "I strongly encourage building immune-supportive menu offerings around sourcing locally, seasonally and as colorfully as possible." The greater the color palette of the ingredients, the more broad the immune support will be, he says.
When putting together an immunity-supporting dish, it's important to include healthy fats, says nutrition consultant Ashley Koff, R.D. She explains that cooking with healthy oils is vital because many important nutrients are fat-soluble. Rouse adds that many healthy oils also discourage inflammation, further enhancing immune-system performance.
Koff consulted with Crustacean—a European-Vietnamese fine-dining restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., that attracts A-list attendees—to develop a menu full of immune-enhancing dishes. She suggests that natural foods retailers work with a dietitian to put together the most healthful grab-and-go options. During her studies, she worked at a Los Angeles County hospital, gaining a strong understanding of how to marry foodservice with immunity enhancement. She encourages retailers to look for a dietitian with similar experience, who will be able to lend practical tips.
For more ideas about how to give customers the most nutritious bang for their buck, see sidebar, below.
Once you have a case full of prepared foods packed with antioxidants and trace minerals, you're in a prime spot to help fortify shoppers against the season's ailments. But with all the other products out there covered in health claims, how do you get your shoppers to take notice without making inappropriate claims about your own dishes?
Grotto, who has worked with several restaurants to develop and market healthy offerings, says the smart thing is to make no claims about your products. But the restaurants "are certainly tying in research about ingredients so [shoppers] can choose to put it together," he says. Grotto's clients often post excerpts from his book, 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life (Bantam, 2007), highlighting the health benefits of certain foods.
Mary Mulry, president of Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm FoodWise, suggests taking a broader approach to marketing your immunity-enhancing offerings. "Put together a pamphlet that talks about the importance of certain foods during [the cold and flu] season," she suggests. "Include lifestyle ideas as well as specific food choices."
"Retailers are smart to put immune-boosting claims in a larger context," agrees Steve Taormina, standards director for The Natural Foods Merchandiser's parent company, New Hope Natural Media. "Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your mouth and eyes, get lots of sleep, drink plenty of water … . These are the real pieces of advice that, along with eating healthy foods high in vitamins and antioxidants, will help keep a person from getting sick during cold and flu season."
Offering vitamin- and antioxidant-rich grab-and-go options can give your customers one more tool for wellness, and raise your store's register rings. "The consuming public is becoming more aware, and it is now our responsibility to meet them with easy and delicious access to an immune-enhancing menu opportunity," Rouse says. "If we prepare it, they will come."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 24,26