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Restaurant Menus Evolve to Meet Dietary Concerns – Specialty Food Association

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Restaurant menus are adapting to meet consumers’ dietary concerns, while consumers’ attitudes about health are also evolving, according to a report from Datassential.

The research firm found in its recent Healthy Keynote Report that 57 percent of consumers say that need to eat healthier. Consumers surveyed in the report cited “eating right” as the most important component of living a healthy lifestyle, narrowly outpacing “exercising/staying physically active.”

Sugar topped the list of ingredients that consumers said they were trying to avoid, followed by high-fructose corn syrup, sodium/salt, fried foods, and unhealthy fats.

“You’re seeing a lot more health studies about the impact of sugar and how it might lead to insulin resistance, and how insulin resistance is the core driver of so much of metabolic disease,” said Jack Li, co-founder of Datassential, in a recent webinar on consumer health trends and how they impact the foodservice industry. “That’s probably going to be up there at number one for a while, and maybe even continuing to grow.”

The report found that consumers are leaning heavily toward eating more fruits and vegetables, and also eating more superfoods, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, and poultry. Other foods that consumers were leaning toward adding to their diets included both dairy and dairy alternatives, fermented foods, plant-based meats, and egg substitutes. Red meat was cited as one food category where consumers were cutting back.

When asked what diets they were currently practicing, consumers’ top response was that they were simply eating a “balanced/healthy” diet, cited by 27 percent of consumers, followed close by a reduced sugar diet at 25 percent. Other popular diets included reduced sodium/salt, reduced fat, high protein, low calorie, reduced carb/high fat, and intermittent fasting.

Lower on the list of diets were gluten-free, Mediterranean, keto, paleo, DASH, FODMAP and other specific dietary regimens.

Healthy Menu Trends 

Interestingly, Datassential found that gluten-free claims last year surpassed vegetarian claims on restaurant menus, even though veggie-centric restaurants and menu items have been growing. In fact, limited-service restaurants in the “salad/healthful” segment were the fastest-growing niche, in terms of number of new units, according to Datassential’s Top 500 Restaurant Chains report for 2023. Unit count for these restaurants was up 17.6 percent, surpassing even the robust 12.2 percent growth at coffee chains and the 10.5 percent growth at limited-service chicken chains, for example.

“There’s a huge … opportunity to offer up healthier things to consumers,” said Li. “Don’t even think about it in terms of doing the right thing; think of it in terms of, ‘There’s a real market for this, and it’s expanding.’”

The webinar highlighted Kitava Kitchen, a five-unit operator in California and Colorado that bills itself as a “clean casual” restaurant. Kitava said all of its dishes are made without seed oils, refined sugars, and artificial preservatives, and that it avoids common allergens, including gluten, dairy, peanuts, and soy.

Marie Molde, director of product marketing at Datassential, said it was the first restaurant she’s seen that has pledged not to use seed oils.

Seed oils have been the subject of both positive and negative reports about the impact they have on health, Li said. “I’m seeing a lot more conversation around seed oil on social media,” he said.

The report cited several other examples of restaurants leaning into consumer demands for healthy fare, such as Qdoba, the fast-casual Mexican brand, which recently rolled out a line of five Post Workout Bowls. Three of these are high in protein, and four are touted as being “gluten friendly.” Another is keto, and one is vegan.

“Protein is such a beloved macronutrient by consumers,” said Molde. “It’s like this magical word. If you mention it, it’s going to be attractive to a lot of people.”

She also highlighted New York-based DIG, which recently touted a Crispy Chicken Kale Caesar Salad that has 54 grams of protein.

Image: Qdoba

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