Every March, food and nutrition professionals commemorate National Nutrition Month® to champion the power of proper nutrition. This year’s theme — Go Further with Food — resonates with food and beverage developers, too.

We all believe in the lifegiving power of food and nutrition — and in the potential of new food and beverage offerings. Innovative formulations and applications are continually advancing food safety, shelf stability, flavor, texture and nutritional value.

Developers who are focused on boosting nutritional value — through formulations that increase beneficial nutrients or decrease less-desirable nutrients — have an untapped opportunity to gain traction with consumers.

To make their food matter to today’s consumers, developers should consider demonstrating how their food or beverage can add value to a person’s overall diet, rather than solely focusing on nutrient claims.

Eating patterns: The sum exceeds the whole of its parts

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), updated every five years, is the cornerstone of evidence-based nutrition recommendations in the United States. While previous guidelines focused on individual foods and nutrients, the 2015 – 2020 DGA outlines how people can improve their overall eating patterns through combinations of foods and drinks in their diets. The guidelines show how making simple shifts can have big impacts on the overall diet rather than calling for a ‘one size fits all’ mindset.

Since there’s no single approach to eating right, the DGA offers three healthy eating patterns:

  • Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern
  • Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern
  • Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern

While these patterns recognize individual preference in food choice – taste, cultural heritage, specific health needs – they are oriented around common principles, including variety and appropriate calorie intake.

Although patterns are emphasized, the DGA acknowledges many Americans under-consume specific nutrients required for good health. The DGA identifies four nutrients of public health concern: calcium, potassium, vitamin D and dietary fiber. Low intakes of these nutrients are associated with negative health impacts.

The DGA’s marked shift — focusing on eating patterns — reflects emerging directions in nutrition research. It also reinforces the connection between nutrition policy and consumer food choices.

Making healthy choices: What’s on consumers’ minds?

As trends data show, consumer attitudes parallel the DGA’s whole-diet approach.

When asked to define a healthy eating style, most consumers said it was the right mix of different food groups. This was shown in the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2017 Food & Health Survey.

The same survey indicated consumers also value specific nutrients and food groups — including DGA nutrients of public health concern: vitamin D and fiber, as well as whole grains.

Aligning with consumer values

Consumers are increasingly prioritizing health and wellness criteria when making their food selections, a fact confirmed by consumers’ recipe and meal plan searches and social media likes for health and wellness brands.

Creating appealing, nutritious products and recipes for consumers is essential to commercial viability for a nutrition, health and wellness brand.Click To Tweet

Companies can gain valuable insights into how their ingredient or product fits into dietary criteria and patterns — before investing in final-stage production and marketing — with a simple but effective assessment tool: menu modeling.

Menu modeling: A tool to connect nutrition recommendations and consumer values

Menu modeling gives manufacturers a better understanding of how foods or ingredients fit within healthy eating patterns based on nutrient recommendations or dietary guidelines.

Food and beverage companies can use menu modeling to create sample menus for any time period – daily, weekly, breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks – to illustrate how a food product or ingredient can be included as part of a healthful food pattern or fit within a calorie range or budget. This is especially important for products that aren’t typically associated with healthy diets, or foods that consumers perceive as bad.

It is usually completed using nutrition analysis software, such as ESHA’s Food Processor® Nutrition Analysis software. Software options rely on databases containing current food and nutrient data for analysis, with the option to add new ingredients, food products or recipes.

Menu modeling can be used to evaluate multiple criteria, including:

  • Food comparison: Compare a menu with your product or ingredient to one without it to evaluate its role in meal patterns and contributions to intake of key nutrients.
  • Food fit: Determine if a product fits within a certain meal pattern or calorie range (e.g., Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, 2,000 calories).
  • Food cost fit/comparison: Demonstrate if a product, ingredient or menu fits within budget parameters (e.g., Thrifty Food Plan).

Interpreting results

As with any technology-driven exercise, data are means to an end. The nutrition analysis software delivers real value when users have a sound strategy, clear goals and the ability to analyze and apply results.

Because of their extensive training, Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are often the best staff or partners to complete menu model exercises and interpret results. RDNs are not only nutrition science experts but also have the know-how for developing and analyzing recipes and meal plans by incorporating products into healthy, realistic eating patterns.

How food and beverage companies benefit

RDNs and other health professionals are the most trusted sources to help guide food choices, according to the IFIC Foundation’s 2017 Food and Health Survey.

That makes it essential for developers to connect with and educate RDNs about their products. At the same time, RDNs are seeking evidence-based nutrition educational materials from food and beverage companies to help their clients make the right food choices.

Menu modeling and nutritional analysis insights can help industry cut through the clutter of conflicting nutrition information. These valuable insights can inform key messaging and marketing materials — infographics, fact sheets, videos and other communications — providing credible information that’s also an effective point of differentiation.

Companies whose ingredients and products integrate into recommended dietary patterns can earn the trust and confidence of those who influence consumer purchasing decisions: RDNs, health professionals, policymakers and other influencers. They will also earn the trust — and preference — of consumers who will have the information they need to make better nutrition choices.

A call to action for food and beverage companies

Menu modeling offers an innovative opportunity to harness the power of nutrition science. It provides R&D departments with insight into a product’s potential nutritional impacts and utility in daily food choices. In turn, it equips marketing teams with credible communications materials that resonate across target audiences.

The industry has the knowledge — and the tools — to put consumers’ appetites for healthful foods first. To make new foods matter in the marketplace and in human lives, let’s move menu modeling to the front of the developer’s plate.

This article was co-authored by Sara Theiler, M.B.A., R.D., and was originally published in the March 2018 issue of The World of Food Ingredients.