The food industry typically has been slow to adopt new technology, but that changed in March 2020. From restaurants to grocery stores to clinical and school foodservice settings, the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the entire food industry on its head virtually overnight. While it may have felt like so much of the world was “put on pause,” quite a few trends in the food industry accelerated, including implementation and advancement of dining technology.
To meet immediate demand for contactless ordering and food delivery options, restaurants and retailers prioritized digital solutions such as website and mobile ordering, in-store kiosks and QR codes that help limit physical contact through the passing of menus, payment and order tickets. Many restaurants accelerated development plans to become “restaurants of the future,” adding pick-up cubbies and refrigerated grab-and-go cases and creating priority drive-thru lanes for mobile orders and pick-up only locations.
One result was that consumers’ access to nutrition information became more readily available at different touchpoints. What once was potentially viewed as a hassle to ask employees for full nutrition information or seek it out on the brand’s website in advance became as simple as one click on a device. Recall that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s menu labeling law that took effect in 2018 required that only calories be declared on standard menu items across all ordering platforms for retail food establishments with 20 or more locations. It also required additional nutrition information (total calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars and protein) be available in written form on the premises in case consumers ask for it. However, advancements in technology made this detailed nutrition information more accessible through company-sponsored or third-party software including QR codes and online ordering portals. This level of visibility into the nutrition profile of menu items at the point-of-purchase could help inform purchasing decisions.
In other instances, however, the pandemic and technological advancements reduced access and transparency concerning nutrition information. In April 2020, the FDA offered flexibility regarding menu labeling requirements to allow establishments to quickly pivot business practices — for example, transitioning to digital ordering and delivery methods or adjusting menu offerings, without analyzing and declaring calories. In some instances, restaurants decided to forego calorie declaration in favor of advancing technology solutions, therefore decreasing nutrition transparency, if only temporarily. This flexibility remains in effect today and for the duration of the public health emergency, as declared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (as of October 18, 2021).
In addition to consumer-facing digital solutions, many restaurants have incorporated new contactless technology into back of-house operations. Some establishments adopted advanced kitchen display systems or touchless digital displays that connect directly with the point-of-sale system. These systems eliminate printed or hand-written tickets by displaying customers’ orders on a screen. Progressive systems can highlight menu customizations, which could reduce the risk of incorrect orders.
Similarly, many retail or supermarket operations have expanded purchasing options to offer digital ordering through company-sponsored outlets or third-party ordering and delivery platforms. Paige Einstein, RD, director of nutrition at Syndigo, a global company that provides product information management solutions, explains that sophisticated software systems filter products based on wellness attributes. Consumers can select desirable attributes, such as “does not contain nuts” or “low sodium.” Algorithms help assess a retailer’s product offerings to determine which items qualify for these filters and display them to the consumer accordingly. This is an example of how technology can help consumers make choices that fit their lifestyle.
Technology and Food Safety
In response to the rise of digital ordering methods and direct delivery of foods to consumers, the FDA launched its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint in July 2020, with hopes to “enhance traceability, improve predictive analytics, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce contamination of food and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures.” A recent summit hosted by the FDA addressed food safety implications of using these new technologies for food ordering and delivery, with an emphasis on the “critical last mile of delivery.”
Additionally, some retail operations that employ registered dietitian nutritionists have transitioned to offering online RDN-led services, such as grocery store tours and cooking demonstrations. Relying on RDN employees helps these retail operations create and execute health-related content as health and home-cooking remain top-of-mind for consumers. These services include meal and budget planning with resources including recipe links, enhanced health messaging, nutrition databases or trackers and menu planning grids.
Challenges exist for certain populations, such as those who use federal nutrition programs for payment. Participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, for example, may struggle to find retailers that accept their method of payment via these new ordering platforms. Prior to the pandemic, as a requirement of the 2014 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service launched an Online Purchasing Pilot to further understand opportunities and challenges of retailers accepting SNAP benefits through digital ordering channels. While this pilot remains active today, only a select number of retailers are involved in certain states and territories. However, efforts are being made to expand these benefits to more areas across the country.
Similarly, USDA recently developed a task force to study “measures to streamline the redemption of WIC benefits in a manner that promotes convenience, safety and equitable access for participants in the WIC program.” Part of the scope of the task force includes examining online and telephone ordering, purchasing and home delivery of WIC foods.
Advancements in technology also have occurred in school foodservice settings. In 2018, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service launched digital tools to assist in streamlining meal operations and improve customer service. One key resource is the Interactive Food Buying Guide, a modernized digital format of the Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs, which helps operators purchase food and assess compliance with meal pattern requirements for child nutrition programs. The digital version is available as a mobile app, has easy search and navigation functionality and allows users to create a favorite foods list.
Colleges have seen a massive growth in technology progression and adoption, since most college-age students grew up in the digital era and are comfortable with new technology. Like restaurants, higher education settings adopted new service models incorporating such digital solutions as mobile ordering and delivery. While many retail outlets on campuses already offered mobile ordering, residential dining outlets that offered all-you-can-to-eat models faced challenges. Operators had to get creative and implement solutions that allowed for value, flexibility and variety. Several schools dedicated areas of traditional dining halls as cubbies or pick-up shelves for mobile orders. Some colleges acted as pilot locations for robotic delivery or deployed high-tech meal vending machines.
According to Susan Push, RD, LDN, of Illinois, who has worked in the nutrition technology field for 16 years, clinical foodservice meal ordering applications where patients can place their own orders are replacing the “traditional” method of diet clerks manually recording menu selections via in-person or telephone interactions.
Advanced applications connect with electronic medical records, or EMRs, to capture dietary restrictions noted in a patient’s chart, ideally hiding menu selections that are not part of the patient’s diet.
Challenges arise if the EMR and nutrition database systems do not synchronize properly, leading to a patient viewing and ordering non-compliant menu items. If an error is not caught, it could put the patient at risk for further health complications. Patient dissatisfaction may occur if the diet clerk needs to call to adjust the menu or if the patient receives a different meal than what they ordered.
Due to the associated risks and learning curves, some establishments launched these programs for select patients, such as obstetrics and gynecology where most patients are on a general diet. This allows employees to get familiar with the new system and work out kinks prior to a full rollout.
Implications for Consumers
While dining technology has provided benefits, challenges remain for operators and consumers. Advancements like QR codes may not be the answer for people with poor eyesight, older smartphone models or who are simply less tech-savvy.
Also, according to recent research from Datassential, younger generations are more likely to adapt and evolve alongside new technology, while older generations may prefer to stick to traditional ordering methods.
In short, if the technology is not highly functional for all parties, it could lead to frustration, incorrect orders and possibly health implications.
What RDNs Can Do
- Ask patients, clients and colleagues if they use dining technology. If so, what types? What are their experiences? Understanding their comfort level, access and literacy with technology is important to help them find solutions that fit their lifestyle.
- Try new dining technology yourself to understand firsthand how it works and challenges that could arise for patients and clients.
- Clinical RDNs can familiarize themselves with the food ordering system and nutrition database available to patients. Partner with foodservice and technology colleagues to resolve any issues.
- Retail RDNs can advocate for expanding virtual services and resources offered by their employers to customers. Explore resources available through the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance to get started.
- For more resources, join Academy dietetic practice groups such as Management in Food and Nutrition Systems, Nutrition Informatics or Food and Culinary Professionals. Many DPGs offer subgroups with an even more specific practice setting, such as Supermarket and Retail and Restaurant and Hospitality subgroups of the Food and Culinary Professionals DPG.
- To learn more about nutrition informatics, review the Academy’s Nutrition Informatics Position Paper or watch a webinar on the topic.
While in most instances, shifts in operational, purchasing and ordering behaviors to more digital solutions offer a more efficient dining experience for the consumer and the operator, the transition has not been seamless and long-term impacts on consumption and purchasing habits are still unknown.
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