American eating habits reflect concerns of the times, and these days, with highly visible media coverage of topics like the environment, chemicals, technology and health, Americans have become fascinated with the idea of “clean eating.”
Though still a relatively new trend, some restaurants have already begun to cater to requests for clean food, and others may follow suit if it continues and appears to be lucrative.
Americans Define “Healthy Eating”
When people used to talk about eating healthfully, they focused on the calorie and nutrient content of foods. Healthy eating, then, would refer to staying within recommended daily calorie intakes, limiting saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, and choosing nutrient-dense foods.
Although many Baby boomers still perceive healthy eating this way, younger generations— Millennials and Gen-Xers—have a different perception of healthy eating.
These generations are more interested in clean eating. They want their food to be natural, minimally processed, and produced and transported in an environmentally friendly manner. They may not read the nutrition label to find out a food’s calorie or sodium content, but they expect to be offered the option of purchasing “clean” food.
For this cohort, “health” may be a more holistic concept that includes personal, environmental and societal well-being.
This shift in American eating habits and the idea of what constitutes healthy eating may be fueled not only by a holistic perspective but also by confusion over nutritional messages. In recent decades, consumers have, at various times, been warned to follow low-fat diets, avoid starchy foods, increase consumption of whole grains, limit intake of saturated fat while increasing intake of healthy fats, restrict egg and cholesterol intake, and include eggs regularly in the diet.
Conflicting messages can be enough to frustrate consumers and encourage them to turn their attention elsewhere.
What Is Clean Eating?
While people have their own ideas of what exactly they consider to be clean eating, there are a few criteria that are commonly included. Organically produced foods, grown without artificial pesticides or fertilizers and produced without hormones or antibiotics, are commonly in demand, as are natural foods, which contain no synthetic dyes, preservatives or flavors. Many Americans also hope to avoid genetically modified foods.
Current Efforts in the Food Industry
Panera Bread is a leader in clean eating within the food industry.
Fortune reports that the chain has announced its intention to “eliminate artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives by 2016.” Some of its meat is already free from antibiotics. Panera continues to serve high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium, and high-sugar options, likely banking on consumers’ focus on clean eating at the expense of calorie and nutrient content.
Chipotle has seen success with its “Food with Integrity” campaign. The restaurant uses some local and organic produce and some meat raised without antibiotics and hormones. Though these changes may be healthy, the chain continues to serve dishes with more than 1,000 calories and nearly enough fat for a day. The campaign is also interesting because it demonstrates that consumers are willing to pay extra for clean food, which is more expensive to produce and prepare.
As they always do, restaurants will continue to cater to changes in American eating habits. Increased interest in clean eating is another of these changes, and popular restaurants, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle, are beginning to meet these demands.
Other restaurants may follow suit if consumers demonstrate that they are not only willing to pay for these more costly products but also willing to avoid restaurants that do not offer clean eating options.