Interview with an innovator: Chef Niklas Ekstedt

October 8, 2018
4 min read

The gut microbiome is a hot topic in the media and in science. The discussion up till now has focused strongly on home cooks’ rising interest in recipes that boost good gut bacteria – but is there scope for out-of-home operators to innovate around digestion, mood and health? Mintel talked to Niklas Ekstedt, Swedish chef and co-author of Happy Food, a book about how the food we eat affects our brains and mental health, to find out.

Caption: Niklas Ekstedt opened his second restaurant in Stockholm, Ekstedt in 2011. It’s a fine-dining restaurant where all dishes are cooked over wood fire; a homage to his childhood and heritage.

Good bacteria holds widespread appeal

According to Mintel’s research, the growing interest in supporting digestive health has helped to drive something of a renaissance of fermented foods as a provider of “good bacteria”. The profile of fermented foods such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi has significantly risen recently, as well as that of sourdough bread.

According to Mintel GNPD (Global New Products Database), the proportion of UK food launches which mention their content of bacteria or live cultures has been steadily growing since 2014. Yet as this still stands at under 1% in 2017, there remains a lot more scope for development in this area given that one in four adults try to eat foods with good bacteria.

An ancient practice, fermentation preserves food through the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids. Common products include wine, beer, vinegar, olives and cheese. In a similar vein, pickling preserves food through fermentation in brine or vinegar, such as German sauerkraut, Korean kimchi and pickled cucumbers.

Given fermented foods can improve microbiome and digestion, these food preservation techniques suit the ongoing health trend within the eating out sector.

Which categories can benefit from providing “happy food”?

“As more meals are eaten outside of home, operators need to think about how food impacts the wellbeing of diners,” said Ekstedt. There is scope for more fast food outlets to innovate around mood foods given the widespread availability of and the convenience of buying takeaways from fast food outlets such as burger bars. The shift, according to Ekstedt, is the introduction of vegan menus in notable meat-led fast food chains, such as Max, the Swedish burger restaurant chain.

Meat-led concepts – burger and chicken – risk missing out on sales if they are not catering to the demand for meat-free dishes. In the UK, a gourmet burger chain to jump on the plant-based bandwagon is Patty & Bun with its Whoopi Goldburger, a meat-free burger featuring tempeh – a fermented soy bean cake from Indonesia – and mushroom patty. Toppings include pickled cucumbers, diced onion, double-smoked gouda cheese, mustard, ketchup, and lettuce.

The vegan ‘Whoopi Goldburger’ – credits: Patty & Bun Instagram

How can operators introduce this idea to customers?

Working with food suppliers and local farmers to buy in a range of seasonal produce is a great place to start. There is opportunity to create wholesome dishes with “diversity” of seasonal ingredients coming from various local farmers, according to Ekstedt. Instead of focusing on refined grains such as white rice, more can be done to incorporate a mix of whole grains and seasonal ingredients into mixed dishes.

Likewise, turning to ancient techniques of fermenting and pickling fruit and vegetables allows operators to tap into the flavours that come from fermented or pickled foods, such as kimchi.

While it is clear that fermentation suits the on-going health trend around gut health, this practice can also help reduce the amount of food that would otherwise get wasted.

Trish Caddy
Trish Caddy

Trish Caddy is a Senior Foodservice Analyst, writing reports about the UK’s eating out market. She previously worked as a restaurant cook in London.

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