Following a healthy diet is now a major aspiration for many American consumers, but what exactly constitutes a nutritious meal is interpreted differently from individual to individual. According to the Hartman Group, health priorities have expanded from a single indicator like weight to now encompass weight, heart health, digestive health, purity, and nutrient density. Under the broader umbrella of nutrient density, functional foods are garnering much attention from consumers who seek out wholesome foods with specific salutary benefits.
“The awareness of the average diner is only going to become more acute and people will be demanding knowledge about how their food was raised or caught, handled, and how it may potentially affect their bodies—and it’s about time,” says chef Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of Border Grill Modern Mexican with locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. “People want and expect more from their food today. They want foods that do something positive for them mentally or physically.”
Milliken adds that the importance of functional foods has become so prominent in recent years that coursework in culinary medicine is now required of all medical students at Tulane University. Furthermore, such educational programs are expected to increase with doctors and chefs alike in attendance.
Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other plant-based foods are chock full of nutrients such as potassium, folic acid, and vitamin C, but they do not complete the proverbial plate. Consumers are also seeking meals with healthy—and filling—proteins. Not only do seafood dishes satiate diners, they also pack a one-two punch of sustainable nutrition.
“Essentially, it’s food as medicine, and seafood is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s the perfect protein: full of EPA and DHA omega-3s and high in essential vitamins and minerals—all the things you need to feel better, see better, think better,” Milliken says. To ensure the seafood she sources is also sustainable, Milliken looks to Alaska, where the state constitution stipulates that suppliers can only fish in sustainable waters.
At Border Grill, seafood is the star in dishes like grilled fish tacos and ceviche. “We love Alaska halibut and will combine that with diced cucumbers, red onion, tomatoes, jalapeños, cilantro, and sometimes carrot so that there is a balance of protein and vegetables,” Milliken says. “Chefs can also call out the fact that a fish is chock full of omega-3s.”
By calling out these functional foods and including their nutritional benefits, restaurants can help educate diners. After all, many consumers are intimidated by the prospect of cooking seafood at home as they are not confident in their abilities, Milliken says. This presents a unique opportunity for restaurants to not only support guests in their quest to eat more wholesomely, but to also introduce them to a wider array of functional foods.
“If you say, ‘I have this omega-3 jackpot on the menu,’ you might be teaching your guests about something new,” Milliken says. “One of the things I can give my diners besides food is a new kernel of knowledge for them and that creates a loyal clientele.”