Health by stealth

DINERS ARE craving indulgent treats, yet the government wants help curbing obesity. Is there a sneaky solution?

Foodservice Footprint P15-A Health by stealth Features Features  Responsibility Deal obesity Martin Caraher Dr Susan Jebb Department of Health Compass City of London University












People are eating out less, but when they do they want to treat themselves. And this has seen changes to menus and tactics. Research by Horizons and Mintel this summer has shown that what the latter calls “gourmet junk food” is a particular favourite, with posh burgers and hotdogs appearing on more and more menus. In another US-led trend, some outlets are enhancing the experience of eating out: 8% of British diners have taken part in an “oversized eating contest” (eating extra large dishes in a set time) in the past year, while one in five (22%) claim they’d like to.


But what does this mean for public health and those companies that are caught between a public craving indulgence and a government desperate to tackle the spiralling obesity crisis?


Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal food network, feels that more and more people are trying to eat healthily and the onus is on food and catering companies to help them. “One in six meals are now eaten out of home and many of these occasions have become part of our usual routine, so it’s important that these meals support our healthy eating goals too,” she says. “Even when eating out is an indulgent treat, the food offered should be as healthy as it can be.”


Jebb feels that more companies need to “wake up to their responsibilities” and “embrace the healthy eating agenda”. But what if customers want indulgence – surely that doesn’t make business sense?


“I think the general trend is for companies to make a healthy offer [alongside more indulgent or less healthy] choices and then leave it up to the consumer to decide,” says Martin Caraher, a professor of food and health policy at City University London.


He says that the occasion and frequency are factors – if it’s once a week as a treat, then that’s a lot less concerning than if it’s every day and it’s never a healthy option.


Some companies are also using “health by stealth”. Compass is one of them, having switched some products to healthier options with no effect on cost or taste for its customers (see right). “We’re always looking for our manufacturers to innovate and develop new ingredients that have a health benefit,” says its head of nutrition, Nicky Martin. Health by stealth is about using products that are “not as indulgent as the consumer might think they are. You also need a good balance on your menus – if there’s fried fish available, we always have a grilled option too.”


Demographic is also key – and there is no one size fits all. Take a substance such as salt: Compass has removed all added salt from every one of its recipes in some sectors because “it’s feeding a generation of people who don’t want the salty taste and they know they don’t need the extra”. But if it’s food for an older generation, then the salt has been reduced but not removed entirely: “We’d rather they ate our food than went and bought a sandwich with double the salt and fat levels,” she explains.


It’s not always an easy balancing act and Martin, like many in the sector, is under no illusions about the challenges facing caterers and the country: “We have the highest obesity levels in Western Europe – it’s scary stuff,” she says.