This past September, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a request for public feedback on labeling food in terms of “healthiness.” The American public was specifically asked to describe what they thought it meant for a particular food item to be “healthy.”
While the request is open through January 26th, the feedback has already been interesting. Some commenters have interpreted “healthy” to mean made or grown without toxic chemicals. Others defined it as naturally growing in the world and minimally processed by humans before being sold. Some even suggested that healthy means absolutely no preservatives of any kind, while others simply think of it as low fat, low salt, or low sugar — or some combination of the above.
Most notably, many nutritionists and food science professionals who participated in the call for information pointed out that labeling individual food items as “healthy” is far too simplistic. To simply point to a dish and declare it healthy is to ignore complex factors about the nutrition of that item.
This is further complicated because in labeling certain foods healthy, businesses within the food industry could be dismissing different foods (especially those enjoyed in moderation) as potentially “unhealthy.”
With so many varied responses to what seems like a simple question, it seems clear that “healthy” is a rather ambiguous description. It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Going one step further, officially declaring that your restaurant serves “healthy food” can send different messages to different people. Using such a broad term could leave your menu up to misinterpretation, and potentially, leave you with a lot of unhappy customers.
It’s important to be very careful with the wording you use on your menu, as well as any in your advertising that focuses on your food.
It’s one thing to say your menu offers healthier choices; it’s another to claim that your menu is Healthy with a capital H. Painting your menu with such broad strokes can put you and your staff in a position of promising something to your customers (their specific vision of healthy food) that you can’t guarantee. Push too far into what you promise on your menu, and your customer might even decide that you’re untrustworthy in how you present your food and your business.
So making vague statements about the healthiness of your menu is not recommended, but even when making specific claims about the health benefits of specific menu items, it’s important that you can back it up.
If you describe your star vegetarian dish as made from organic ingredients, you can’t switch them out for non-organic ingredients on a whim — at least not without changing that description on your menu.
If you say a dish is vegan, for example, it needs to fit the overall guidelines for being vegan, i.e. the product doesn’t contain ingredients of animal origin, including milk, eggs, honey, and gelatin.
And when it comes to gluten-free menus, the FDA requires you meet their specific definition — that it must contain less than 20 parts per million of the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and cross-bred hybrids of these grains.
Also, be careful to not use a dish’s low sugar/low calories/low sodium as proof of its overall healthiness. Low sodium dishes can still be high in fats, while low sugar dishes can be higher in sodium. Avoiding any kind of sweeping statements, in favor of more specific descriptions of WHY you believe a dish is healthy, is the most recommended route for restaurant chefs and menu scribes.
Keep in mind that there are other words you can use to accurately describe the state of your food besides “low sugar” or “low fat” that will imply a healthier approach. For instance, if your dishes are grilled, roasted, baked, steamed, or poached, make sure to mention it in the description. For diners looking for other cooking methods outside of frying, seeing those descriptors could be a real selling point.
Not only will that entice the health-minded diner towards those dishes — and your restaurant— but it will allow you to be more specific about the healthier and palate-pleasing aspects of your dishes without coming off as clinical.
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