The trend of healthy eating is steadily eating its way into the world of conference catering. But does it work? We investigate
Any seasoned conference attendee will have experienced that all-too-familiar afternoon dip. Not ideal when you’re listening to the keynote speech or trying to obtain vital information during a seminar your boss said it was important to attend.
Traditionally, we’ve blamed this on the high intensity of conferences
– we’re socialising more than usual, our brains are absorbing a higher volume of information than normal and we’re doing a lot more walking and standing up – it’s exhausting. But this only paints half the picture. Food paints a large part of it, too. Still, it’s only relatively recently that we’ve started focusing on the link between the food that’s served at conferences
and our performance, concentration and energy levels when we’re there.
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The evolution of conference food
We’ve seen the massive health-food trend eating its way through this industry. Is this actually beneficial to delegates at conferences
? We’ve spoken to a range of nutrition experts, event caterers
and conference centres
that claim they’re doing ‘something different’ in terms of the food they offer in our attempt to answer this question.
Conference food has typically been pretty uninspiring, unhealthy and more focused on cost-savings than quality. Wendy Martinson OBE, group nutritionist at De Vere, tells us: ‘It tended to be dishes that were simple to serve on a large scale with traditional flavours that would appeal to a wide audience.’ This meant red meat, lasagne and other heavy lunch-time dishes.
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Mark Maher, events director at London catering company Boulevard Events
(who also has a master’s degree in sport science and nutrition), agrees: ‘The main concern for event planners was making sure there was plenty of food so that delegates wouldn’t go hungry. That meant there was very little thinking around the impact of good nutrition.’
Hence pastries, bacon rolls, biscuits and dishes high in carbohydrates were regulars on the menu. But this was the industry norm and events caterers
based their packages on the average enquiry – it was what attendees wanted.
And it’s that – demand – that has changed everything. Wendy Martinson says that the changes are driven by customer demand as, nowadays, delegates and event planners are far more conscious of the benefits of eating well. Also, because of the increase in people’s varying dietary requirements, people are expecting more options. A large pot of beef stroganoff with rice just won’t cut it anymore.
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How has the ‘healthy food trend’ infiltrated the industry?
There is no denying that the ‘healthy food trend’ is growing within conference catering.
Take Twickenham Stadium
, for instance, with its much anticipated East Stand
. As part of that development, head chef Thomas Rhodes and his team is aiming to change the perception of stadia catering through providing a more varied menu with a focus on healthy, nutritious food.
Other conference centres
are creating entire concepts around healthy eating. ICC Wales has its ‘Mind, Body and Soul Food’ philosophy consisting of food that aims to keep the mind sharp, your body strong and your soul nourished (to them, that means locally sourced produce, superfoods, fruit and vegetable and foods high in protein and low in saturated fats).
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And at Excel London, a new Urban Garden has launched as part of the venue’s food outlets on the central boulevard. The ‘healthy’ food consists of high-quality locally sourced produce and seasonal ingredients. Again, this is meant to increase productivity and wellbeing.
has noticed a big rise in the number of event organisers interested in prioritising nutrition, Mark Maher tells us. According to him, the industry has really started to recognise the importance of good nutrition at events.
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FOOD PITFALLS: WHAT BOOKERS NEED TO LOOK OUT FOR
There are many foods out there that are branded as ‘healthy’ that, in fact, aren’t as beneficial as first believed. Here’s what to avoid
How many times have you not seen superfood being advertised on menus or promoted as the one and only saviour on social media? Well, it might not be as ‘super’ after all. ‘We don’t have evidence that any specific food can improve cognitive performance and it is [therefore] not necessary to choose foods that might be perceived as “superfoods” in order to promote health,’ says Bridget Benelam, nutrition communications manager at the British Nutrition Foundation.
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• White rice
White rice contains sugar and refined carbohydrates and is therefore considered a high-glycaemic food (food that releases energy quickly). ‘This can lead to mood swings and fatigue,’ explain Emily and Lisa from Vital Health Nutrition. Consider brown and wholegrain rice instead – both healthy alternatives and just as tasty. Look out for sushi! ‘Beware of all that white rice,’ says Emily and Lisa. Even though sushi can contain healthy elements such as fresh fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the ratio to fish and rice is usually off. What is more, sometimes the fish can have preservatives added to it, which is not good for your body.
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Just like white rice, pasta has a high GI (glycaemic index). So either leave spaghetti Bolognese, pasta bake and lasagne off the menu from now on, or choose wholegrain alternatives.
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• White bread
Everyone loves a sandwich, right? And having breakfast baps in the morning is an unbeatable classic. Well, just like white rice and pasta, white bread has a particularly high GI, so opt for dark bread – or even better – rye bread (full of healthy grains and pulses), and you’re good to go. Also, overnight oats with chia seeds or fresh fruit are two brilliant breakfast alternatives, according to Mark Maher at Boulevard Events
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• Hidden sugars
By now, we’re all aware that processed sugar is a big no-no. But you’d be surprised to see how much hidden sugars are in items that are often branded ‘healthy’. Blueberry muffins, smoothies, energy balls and granola? Full of it.
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So what really is ‘healthy food’?
A press release from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) states that ‘mixed messages from health and news sources leave UK adults confused about nutrition’. So what really is ‘healthy food’? Do the conference centres and catering companies claiming to provide healthy catering actually achieve what they want (increase productivity, performance, concentration and energy levels)?
Surprisingly, Bridget Benelam, nutrition communications manager at the BNF reveals that there are no foods that have specifically been shown to increase this better than other foods. ‘However,’ she says, ‘when planning meals and snacks for events, it may be helpful to bear in mind foods that are likely to help keep people feeling fuller and that release energy more slowly.’
These tend to be foods that are high in protein and fibre and lower in fat and sugar – whole grain foods, beans and pulses, lean meats and fish, fruit and vegetables, which are considered ‘healthy’. ‘Lean protein-rich food appears to be effective in keeping people feeling fuller compared to carbohydrate-rich or fatty foods,’ Bridget explains. ‘Whole grain foods tend to have a lower glycemic index, which maintains steady blood sugar levels.’ (See box-out for more info on this.)
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Emily and Lisa of Vital Health Nutrition say that this type of food’s ability to release energy slowly is exactly the reason it works so well at conferences. The duo also claims that there are, in fact, certain foods that contribute to added energy levels and performance. ‘Food rich in vitamin B (green, leafy vegetables) can help support energy systems and combat fatigue and brain fog.’
However, in line with Bridget’s emphasis on people ‘feeling fuller’ De Vere’s Wendy Martinson’s explanation is particularly insightful: ‘Healthier food generally gives people an overarching sense of wellbeing, which has a knock-on effect on performance. From a physiological point of view, balanced dishes support brain functionality as well as an ongoing feeling of good energy levels.’
So even though the science backs up the fact that certain types of food are good for our bodies generally, there is nothing to suggest that it increases productivity, performance, concentration and energy levels specifically. But does that matter? If ‘healthy food’ gives conference attendees the feeling that it’s good for them and will prevent those eyelids from dropping during the afternoon keynote, then why not roll with it? And if that’s what the customer demands, it would be silly for conference centres and caterers not to oblige.
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