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Prepare for a Second Coming of the Age of Nutrition

Prepare for a Second Coming of the Age of Nutrition

Onsite operators need to retain their leadership role in nutrition matters.

I recently had reason to look up the very first issue of Food Management, published back in August of 1972. The cover story was “The Dramatic Age of Nutrition,” and its lead paragraph read:

“To the foodservice director … the next decade promises to be the most stimulating and perhaps upsetting of your career. For at no time in this country's history has the field of nutrition been so astir with controversy. Nothing is sacrosanct. Everything is being challenged, from the Basic Four to the RDA to even the old standard of ‘three square meals a day.’ New research is flowing in. New foods are coming down the chutes. And new governmental legislation is imminent.”

Substitute a reference to the USDA's food pyramid for the “Basic Four,” and that same passage could apply just as readily today, reflecting today's widespread concerns about childhood obesity, the diabetes epidemic, increasing healthcare costs, aging population demographics and rapidly advancing knowledge about the role of diet in health.

The last point — about imminent government legislation — is certainly an issue of great concern today, and not only to our readers. The broader foodservice and restaurant community is coming under ever greater scrutiny as increasing numbers of states and municipalities seek to implement “nutritional labeling” regulations for restaurants and bans on food ingredients that are seen as contributing to poor dietary habits.

On the other hand, foodservice directors working in segments like healthcare, schools and the military have always had missions in which concern about nutrition was a key management responsibility. Historically, even segments like business and industry dining often began their onsite foodservice programs in recognition of the role basic nutrition played in maintaining a productive and reliable work force.

In one important sense, there is potential for a great irony here. Onsite foodservice, for all its innovation, has always been a follower and adapter, rather than a leader, in terms of broader foodservice menu trends. As restaurants and chains have popularized various food presentations, from burritos to smoothies to today's ubiquitous “sliders,” onsite operators have adopted them as well, capitalizing on such trends.

But nutrition is an area in which onsite operators have always led the field. Long before established restaurant chains even considered making nutritional data available many of our readers regularly posted such information.

Onsite operators still have to offer customers the food choices they want, even if some are not the most healthful. But many have also regularly sought to integrate nutrition education into their operations and, much more than the commercial side of the business, have always regularly demonstrated that good-looking food can taste great and be healthful at the same time. That practical kind of education can change behavior and tastes over the long haul.

Today, as national restaurant chains seek to fend off further regulation (as well as potential legal liabilities), there is every reason to think they will soon begin to innovate in this area themselves. They also have the finances and national advertising campaigns to ensure that any efforts along these lines are well publicized.

That is where the irony I alluded to may come in. While such voluntary efforts are to be applauded, I'd hate to see them result in the commercial side of foodservice coming to be seen as the “industry leader” in the area of nutrition education.

Readers of this magazine would do well to retain their leading role in this new Age of Nutrition, working to ensure that they get the recognition they have long deserved for their efforts. Whether you are an independent operator or part of a management company, this is a worthy goal and one that should be at the top of your agenda as you enter the coming decade.

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