Photo: © Nofima

Why should you eat from the salad bar?

Do you avoid the cafeteria salad bar? There are good reasons to stop doing that, research shows.

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People who eat from the salad bar consume a normal daily intake of vegetables already for lunch, shows a scientific article published in the Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment.

Researchers from Nofima, Nibio and Plantchem have surveyed Norwegians’ salad bar habits at 450 cafeterias operated by ISS Facility Services. ISS is one of Norway’s largest cafeteria operators.

“The aim of the survey is to achieve better knowledge of our lunch habits. We have looked at how much is consumed from the salad bar, which vegetables are the most popular and why,” explains Rune Slimestad, a researcher at Plantchem.

Together with Josefine Sofie Hansen (Nofima) and Michel Verheul (Nibio), the researchers analysed ISS’ purchasing statistics over a period of one year (2016) and visited several of the cafeterias. The survey is part of the BioFresh research project, funded by the Research Council of Norway under the BIONÆR programme (Sustainable Innovation in Food and Bio-based Industries).

Halfway to five-a-day

The results of the research served up several surprises. Among other things, it turns out that cafeteria guests with access to a salad bar consume about a day’s intake of vegetables for lunch.

According to the researchers’ calculations, an average cafeteria lunch contains 229 grams of vegetables (262g including potatoes). The estimate is calculated from ISS’ purchase figures, the probable amount of kitchen and cafeteria waste (50%), and the number of registered cafeteria guests.

According to the Directorate of Health’s statistics for 2016, the average Norwegian ate a total of 216 grams of vegetables per day (337 g including potatoes). That estimate includes all meals during the day. Hence, the researchers believe that the salad bar can serve as an incentive to eat more veggies.

“This is positive news that says a lot about the importance of accessibility for encouraging people to eat more vegetables,” says Nofima researcher Jorunn Sofie Hansen.

Picking from the salad bar also makes it easier to live up to the Norwegian health authorities’ five-a-day recommendation, which translates to a daily consumption of about 500 grams of fruits and vegetables.

What do we choose from the salad bar?

So what are the most popular vegetables in the salad bar? According to the researchers, leaf lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers are the most commonly eaten ingredients. In total, they made up over half of ISS’ vegetable purchases.

Not surprisingly, iceberg lettuce, the world’s most eaten leaf lettuce, dominates the statistics. Other well-known varieties such as Ruccula and Baby Leaves figure well behind.

For tomatoes, the traditional round and red tomatoes are the most common, the statistics show. However, these tomatoes give off a lot of juice, giving rise to some waste for the cafeteria and a less attractive appearance to cafeteria guests.

“We therefore see that smaller varieties of tomatoes such as Cherry are becoming prevalent. An advantage is that they do not necessarily have to be sliced before serving. Juice waste is consequently reduced and their attractiveness remains intact,” says Hansen.

What makes vegetables attractive?

According to the research group, attractiveness is an important criterion for consumers when picking and choosing from the salad bar. Colours and aesthetics play important roles. The colours of the vegetables particularly important selling points.

“After all, we ‘buy’ with our eyes. We have noticed that varieties of bell peppers such as yellow, orange, green and even purple are used,” says Nofima researcher Josefine Sofie Hansen.

But it doesn’t apply to all vegetables. Tomatoes in alternative colours are seldom chosen, despite being available in almost every colour – from yellow to green. The researchers believe this is due to several factors, including price, availability and demand.

Health benefits

But it’s not just the eyes that benefit from colourful salad bars. Earlier research indicates that pigments in vegetables can have an important impact on our health.

Certain colour pigments incorporate health-promoting qualities. For example, a number of clinical studies have shown that the antioxidant lycopene, which gives the tomato its red colour, reduces the risk of prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease.

So this gives us yet another reason to fill our plates with salad – and perhaps be even more creative in the selection process.

In-depth scientific publication:

Rune Slimestad, Jorunn Sofie Hansen and Michel Verheul (2018). Intake of vegetables and vegetable pigments during a lunch meal in Norwegian canteens with salad bars. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment Vol.16 (2): 14-21.

Consumer and sensory sciences   Food and health  

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