The Latest Menu Label for Health-Conscious Diners? “Detox”


It's hard to imagine a menu descriptor that sounds as full of promises yet as unappetizing as "detox." Yet, it's the latest health-conscious jargon to be employed by local restaurants. Both Sweetgreen and recently opened fast-casual eatery Hälsa use the word on their menus.

Sweetgreen introduced a seasonal "detox salad" on its new winter menu. The dish includes shredded kale, organic arugula, watercress, spicy broccoli, red onion, pears, avocado, and "umami" walnuts (flavored with extra virgin olive oil, salt, a secret blend of spices, and nutritional yeast flakes). It's topped with a "housemade seasonal detox dressing" made of lemon, ginger, garlic, and chili powder.

Sweetgreen culinary director Michael Stebner says the detox salad is the first salad he's made where the name came before the ingredients. "Something that is detoxing has a cleanse quality, helps to clean your blood, helps to clean your liver, your kidneys, your [gastrointestinal tract]," he says. What he discovered: That pretty much means everything that's healthy. "So it was very, very easy to come up with the salad," he says.

Kale, for example, has a lot of fiber that helps clean out your gastrointestinal tract. Garlic has nutritional compounds that help to clean your blood and aids your liver. And then there's watercress, which, Stebner says, "is kind of the new kale... We're constantly looking for the next kale."

Also, Stebner wants to make clear that eating this salad is not like getting a colonic. "It's not the Activia detox salad," he says.

At Hälsa, one of the rotating seasonal sides you can add to the build-your-own market plates is labeled as "detox." Currently, it's braised red cabbage with... pork. Pastry chef Melissa Beazer says the "detox" is meant to refer more to the cabbage than the pork, but she points out the Berkshire pork is a high-quality heritage breed. Future "detox" sides might include daikon radish, broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables.

"Cabbage is a detoxifying vegetable because of the different properties in it, and that's why we put it into that category," Beazer says. "It's not like if you were to eat that side every day, something would happen to your body and you'd be different. It's just the way that we made our menu."

Registered dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield of Capitol Nutrition Group concurs these foods are great for you. But she clarifies that it's not the foods themselves that are doing the detoxing. Rather, they help your body do the detoxing it naturally does anyway. "I would chalk that up to marketing and branding," Scritchfield says of restaurants labeling dishes as "detox." Drinking plenty of water, she says, is actually the ultimate way to help your body detox. And as Stebner discovered, pretty much any healthy meal will have the same effect.

So if labeling dishes as "detox" is marketing, is it actually effective marketing?

Stebner says he thought Sweetgreen's detox salad would sell like gangbusters given that it's January and everyone is fresh off their healthy New Year's resolutions.

The salad is selling better than the other vegan salads, but it's not doing nearly as well as Stebner had anticipated. "I was under the impression that it was going to just go nuts," he says. He suggests the reason why might be that the word "detox" comes off as too serious or medicinal. "You feel like maybe you're at the pharmacy ordering something," he says

Still, Sweetgreen isn't necessarily giving up on labeling seasonal salads as "detox." Stebner wonders if it would play better as swimsuit season approaches, or in another market.

"We're opening in California in a couple months," he says. "If we put the detox salad on the menu in California in January, I think we're going to have a totally different result."

Photo courtesy Sweetgreen