Understanding "Healthy"

May 7, 2018
Operators can benefit in this new era of eating by understanding what consumers view as healthy and marketing their offerings based on science.

The world of eating is changing. Consumers want healthy snacking options. Companies are adding more health and wellness initiatives to workplaces. Manufacturers are remaking and relabeling products to better display ingredients and nutrients. All providing operators an unprecedented opportunity to bring about change and better sales. As the experts on feeding and refreshing a captive audience with vending machines, micro markets and through office coffee service, operators can be part of the solution to bring healthy items into the workplace and educate everyone about the benefits, while also ensuring choice and profitability.

Defining healthy 

Consumers are increasingly seeing ‘healthy’ as an important quality of their snacking habits, but what exactly is a healthy snack? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is redefining the term ‘healthy’ perhaps because it is a paragraph long and still isn’t an adequate definition. However, there is research out there to support that there are some broadly held ideas of what is healthy. They are natural, transparency and a group of special diet options. Operators need products that fit all these different concepts. David Grotto, MS, RDN, LDN, senior nutrition manager, specialty channels and frozen foods, Kellogg, said, “Consumers are balancing health and indulgence, with healthy/natural products being selected at similar rates to satisfying cravings, treats and rewards.” He went on, “They will continue to demand choices to meet their many snacking needs.”

Natural & Authentic 

Grotto also spoke at a few of the education sessions at the NAMA Show in Las Vegas, NV, this past March. According to Grotto, healthy eating today is about consuming natural, authentic foods. Some 36 percent of consumer’s eating occasions included at least one item labeled as all natural or made with natural ingredients in 2017, he reported.

Part of what makes a food natural is its authenticity to its origins. Authenticity also translates to being transparent, which in the case of a consumable simply entails a complete list of ingredients and the process of production. Grotto explained that it is important to consumers that brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) helps to define ‘organic’ with Organic 101, which aims to help people better understand the different aspects of the USDA organic regulations. USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards specify additional considerations. 

Some consumers choose to favor the label non-GMO, because they see it as the ultimate certification of both natural and transparent. “Consumers define authenticity and purity by organic or non-GMO labels,” said Grotto. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit that works through consumer education, outreach and industry experts to build and protect a non-GMO food supply. The Non-GMO Project states that a product’s inputs must be evaluated for compliance, defining the non-risk level as “the input is not derived from biological organisms and not, therefore, susceptible to genetic modification.” Put more simply, non-GMO means that the food is made without ingredients that were derived from genetically engineered organisms. According to the IFIC Foundation Food & Health survey, 73 percent of consumers seek non-GMO labels because they believe these foods are either healthier, safer, or better for the environment. This emphasis consumers put on specific qualities of foods has them more interested than ever in eating healthy.

The popularity of consumer interest in mindful eating has not gone unnoticed by companies that want to stay on top of this trend. Consumer eating habits are taken into consideration, which helps operators with the hard part of knowing what products will be profitable. “Mondelez International is catering to consumers and the ever-changing diet trends with a variety of better-for-you snacks, many of which are kosher, gluten free, or made with natural ingredients,” said Malcolm McAlpine, business manager Branded Snacks — Foodservice and Vending, Mondelez International. “Consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to the nutritional value of the food they consume. An emphasis on premium quality, traceable, trustworthy sourcing and simple, clean label ingredients is replacing a single-minded focus on low calories,” he continued.


Knowing what is in food and how it is made is another way consumers are defining healthy. Label Insight conducted a study in which it surveyed 1,500 consumers to determine how they make food choices, shop and what they expect from brands when it comes to product information. Nearly all respondents (94 percent) said it is important to them that the brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made.

The IFIC Foundation Food & Health survey found a similar idea. One-third of participants say it is highly important to them to know that a company shares the same values as they do. Companies are making an effort to focus on the positive qualities consumers crave in their eating habits. “As the world’s largest snack company, we know we have a critical role to play in empowering consumers to snack mindfully,” said McAlpine. “We are enhancing our portfolio of brands to meet consumer demands for high quality and premium products that promote their overall well-being.”

Diet Trends 

The personalization of consumers eating habits is at an all-time high. As a result of this, the grab n’ go industry of convenience services has a great opportunity in being a part of consumers’ demand for more options. Some different types of diets that have been very popular and are still  include the paleo diet, the keto diet and a diabetic or heart-healthy diet.

Mayo Clinic describes a paleo diet as typically including lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds — foods that in the past (during the Paleolithic era, hence its name) could be obtained by hunting and gathering. A paleo diet limits foods such as dairy products, legumes and grains. The diet reasons that the human body is genetically mismatched to the modern diet that emerged with farming practices.

The Cleveland Clinic states that the ketogenic diet is a stringent nutrition plan that’s high in fat, moderate to low in protein and very low in carbohydrate. The individual chooses different ratios of fat to protein and carbohydrate. The idea is that restricting carbohydrates reduces insulin levels and fat accumulation. It is similar in many ways to the paleo diet.

Lastly, the American Diabetes Association offers an explanation of a healthy diabetic diet as eating less unhealthy fats and choosing the types of fats that help your cholesterol. It also suggests maintaining a healthy weight by keeping portions in perspective and making healthy food choices. The American Diabetes Association also mentions reducing sodium intake which can help many people with blood pressure control. 

Despite the popularity of these trendy diets, there has also been the creation of more individualized diets. Grotto said that what trumps these other diets is the consumer’s individual diet, which he called the “diet for me.” In this eating trend, the consumer is looking for customization, a way to fulfill their individual eating needs. Jim Kelley, senior business manager — Foodservice, Dole, said, “Snacks that satisfy cravings, satiate hunger and offer nutritional benefits with bold flavor are also very much on trend.”

Diane Striegel, MS, RDN, director, sales planning, Foodservice, Mondelez International, also spoke at education sessions at the NAMA Show. She said that today’s consumer considers if an item is ‘good for me,’ and doesn’t care about whether it’s good for anyone else. This means operators need variety and several sources of information for nutrition. Another session speaker from the NAMA Show, Elizabeth Mitas Vegas, industry advisor, strategic alliances, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, added that over the last 5 years, there’s been a lot of personalization. Consumers are trying different diets, different food, but then listening to their bodies to see if it’s working for them. This gives operators an opportunity to try a variety of different products.

An increase in consumer interest in personalized dining is an excellent way to capitalize with snacks that fit a variety of needs. Providing products for consumers’ eating needs should include considerations such as snacks that fit different day parts, both fresh and shelf stable products, and on-the-go items. “Snacking is playing a significant role in the evolution of consumer dining habits,” said Kelley. “...convenient, portable, shelf stable items with long shelf lives [like Dole Fruit Bowls] make it easy for vending operators to capitalize on the trend,” he continued.

Educating the consumer 

Larry Soler, founding partner at Convergency, a client-advocacy company, said at NAMA that there is a lot of confusion among consumers over customization. This confusion comes from changes as to what is considered healthy, which can also lead to distrust. There’s an opportunity here to take a bigger role in educating the consumer with scientifically accurate information. This will encourage the consumer to take part in a healthy program, because it untangles some of the mixed messages they may have been hearing. As Lucille Beseler, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, president, Family Nutrition Center of Southern Florida, NAMA speaker, said, “science is ever-changing.” This is all the more reason to stay informed on current information so that the education shared with consumers is accurate.

Vending operators can partner with consumers by offering a product showcase focused on specific eating needs. At the NAMA Show, Striegel suggested that one way to do this is with a monthly special of products with true, scientifically proven attributes. Another way to help garner interest from consumers is to give the products in this monthly special, better pricing. The role of convenience services in consumers’ lives creates a unique opportunity to educate, explained Beseler. There is available a number of resources from trusted sources such as government guidelines and the (accredited) academy of nutrition and dietetics. Grotto explained that as part of the education process, he considers the hyper access to food in a captive environment that vending machines and micro markets provide as an opportunity. This environment creates an opportunity to offer consumers the products that fit their individual eating needs while also educating with valid sources.

Bringing Balance 

It is to the operator’s advantage to position products that give the consumer the opportunity to personalize their diet. It encourages them to come to the break room and make purchases. It makes the operator a partner in wellness initiatives. Lastly, it changes the idea of snacking in the eye of the world from a junk food purveyor to a bringer of wholesome and indulgent snacks — a choice. The key for operators is to balance offerings with different product types that meet different eating needs.

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