From gluten-free and vegan to low fat and organic, the healthy food movement is alive and kicking
There was a time not too long ago when you could almost build a house with gluten-free bread loaves, the very mention of soy milk made people’s eyes water and vegetarians were just plain annoying. But things have certainly changed. Buckwheat pancakes now stand shoulder to shoulder with bacon and eggs on the brekkie menu and a chickpea casserole has been known to outshine a classic chicken parma down the pub. And with heart disease and diabetes continuing to be the number one killers of Australian people, it’s little wonder why more and more people are being forced to have a good hard look at how they eat, when they eat out.
As the nation tunes in to watch celebrity chefs teach overweight contestants how to eat healthily on The Biggest Loser and retail giant Woolworths spends a reported $30 million to acquire healthy brand Macro, savvy restaurateurs and caterers are also busy making sure they get their piece of the gluten-free pie.
For Suzie Parker of Sensations en Ardross in Western Australia, it was a customer who stopped coming to her café that helped steer a course towards a very specific kind of healthy menu. “There was a woman who used to eat with us every day and then she disappeared. Finally, I ran into her and she said I can’t eat with you anymore Suzie, I’ve been diagnosed as a coeliac. ‘A what?’ I’d said. That was ten years ago. I’d never heard of Coeliac’s disease. I then learned everything I could about gluten-free.”
Fast forward a decade and you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurateur or caterer who hadn’t heard the term gluten-free. For Parker it was a research project that has paid big dividends.
“Things have really grown,” Parker explains.
“We found that people started asking for gluten-free, then no dairy and then no sugar. We then built our recipes on customer demand. Of course, the key is the food has to taste great. I find that people now come in groups of five and six because one is a Coeliac.”
Pacific West trading manager Paul McGreevy believes about half of Australian restaurants feature certain menu items because of specific or unique nutritional benefits. “We’ve seen an increase in the demand for our salmon from restaurants and cafes due to the healthy benefits that are associated with it,” he says. “We’ve also found that there seems to be a gap in the market for children and trying to appeal to them to eat salmon. When dining out most parents would love for their kids to try something different and healthy at the same time.”
QLD co-ordinator of Food Circus for Mushrooms Faye Tabet agrees that parents are driving the trend, however, she admits there is still a long way to go before Australians are really indulging in a healthy diet when they eat out.
“Healthy eating is not only driven by consumers,” she says. “Governments are getting involved too because obesity is a problem that is starting with our youth. They are trying to teach parents to feed their children properly. Gradually, people are starting to wake up and listen. They are interested and wanting information about healthy food.”
For former Today Show food correspondent Peter Howard, knowing your customers and giving them exactly what they want is the secret.
“Look at your demographic and who you are trying to attract,” says the former owner of four restaurants.
“Be aware of changing trade and cultural influences. Look at vegetarianism, twenty years ago we used to say ‘oh no, not a bloody vegetarian.’ These days, any thinking caterer will now have 10 per cent of his content reserved for people who don’t eat meat.”
Howard, who presented to chefs as part of an Alliance Catering national education program says smart marketing can make all the difference when selling the healthy stuff.
“Often it can all depend on how you describe it on the menu,” he says.
“For example, frittata becomes a crustless quiche. Buckwheat can be sold as buckwheat pancakes with caponata.”
Sydney-based macrobiotic food chain Iku Wholefoods has made and art out of marketing the healthy side of life.
Having started with one store in Glebe in 1985, Iku is just about to open its 13th store.
“Twenty six years on and Iku is coming to fruition,” Part-owner Andrew Hayes says.
At Iku, 20 chefs arrive at a central kitchen at 4am so that food can be at the counters of their stores by midday. The result is a product that requires no freezing, and no preservatives.
“This should be on every corner and you are doing the right thing with food,” he says. “Delivered fresh and made daily and it’s true. It’s not a ‘Woothworths the fresh food people’ type campaign which doesn’t necessarily guarantee the freshness of the food in stock. We are actually doing it.”