Consumers’ Buying Trends Towards Healthier Choices
If you have ever belonged to a gym, you know that when January rolls around the New Year’s resolutes are out in full force. There are waiting lines at treadmills and jam-packed spinning classes. Consumers are motivated by trend and a personal desire for a lifestyle change. Healthy eating is not just a January trend. The media continues to shine its bright lights on documentaries and books like Forks Over Knives, Fast Food Nation, Simply Raw, Food Matters, and Food Inc. The public’s awareness of eating healthier and balancing their meals is becoming more than that distant parental voice in the back of their mind, “Eat your veggies!”
Historical data comparisons show that Americans are making more efforts to eat healthful fare.
- Fully 56% of respondents polled this spring reported that they’re eating more healthfully now compared to their past behavior; two years ago, only 45% of consumers asserted that they were eating better than before.
- Nearly nine out of 10 women and nearly three out of four men surveyed said they appreciate lower-calorie and other healthful options on menus.
- About three out of 10 consumers reported that they’ve stepped up visits to restaurants that offer foods they deem healthful and sustainable; most of them said it’s because they’re focusing more on their health, and close to half also noted that prices of such items have declined and availability has improved.
When consumers are forced to choose between health and taste, taste will win out every time. But, as restaurant operators have gotten better at marrying health and taste, consumers increasingly find they can have the best of both worlds.
More than two-thirds of consumers polled for Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report agreed that restaurant foods described as healthy can taste good. Maybe that’s why a recent analysis of chain and independent restaurant menus found that the number of items described as “healthy” has almost doubled in the past year.
Three hot menu trends stand out as breakfast opportunities: Greek yogurt, oatmeal, and whole-grain or multigrain pancakes, muffins and breads.
Healthful fare is proliferating on the menus of eateries of all types, in all day parts and meal parts. Some of the areas making news include:
Better-for-you breakfast foods underscore health and wellness along with appealing, fresh flavors. On Café Metro’s new morning menu, whole-wheat pancakes with butter and a small fruit salad come to 328 calories; two eggs with a side of turkey bacon and a small fruit salad adds up to 500 calories. Denny’s Fit Fare menu offers items like the Fit Slam (egg whites scrambled with spinach and grape tomatoes, served with two strips of turkey bacon, an English muffin and seasonal fruit) and Harvest Oatmeal Breakfast (oatmeal with apple chunks, dried cranberries and brown sugar, served with milk, two strips of turkey bacon and seasonal fruit).
Four out of 10 consumers report that they are snacking on healthier items more frequently than they were two years ago.
APPETIZERS, SNACKS, SMALL PLATES AND SMALLER PORTIONS
Consumers’ attitudes toward both meals and portions are changing, and restaurant menus have evolved accordingly. Increasingly, multiple small meals and snacks are seen as part of a healthful diet. Diners are also more likely than they once were to order an appetizer as their entrée or to demand a smaller portion of a standard entrée item: 44 percent of consumers today say they opt for a smaller portion when they want to cut calories, up from 36 percent in 2009. In addition, appetizer platters, snacks and small plates are seen as great options for sharing among a group of diners, giving everyone a chance to sample a variety of tasty items. Au Bon Pain’s Portions menu includes a variety of 200-calorie-or-less items such as Apples, Blue Cheese & Cranberries or Herb Cheese, Fruit & Crackers. At The Cheesecake Factory, new small plates, entrées and salads include Shrimp Toast Lollipops, Over the Top Meatloaf Sandwich, Papas Bravas, Fresh Kale Salad and Santorini Farro Salad.
SOUPS AND SALADS
Away-from-home soup and salad purchases are on the rise as consumers seek these light, healthy and affordable options as standalone entrées, side substitutions, appetizers and components of combo meals. Three-quarters of those who are purchasing salads more often say they’re seeking a healthier option, and half are looking for something lighter. Restaurants are obliging: new light options at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, for instance, are EnLIGHTened Thai Chicken Mango Salad and Fresh Watermelon and Feta Salad.
With the drive toward fresher and more healthful, varied fare, sides are no longer the least imaginative part of the menu. At 4food, a New York City better-burger concept, sides include rice, mixed green salad or Square Roots (Idaho potatoes, sweet and purple potatoes and sweet potatoes, boiled and then roasted with herbs). On Luby’s new Livin’Smart menu, side options include broccoli, squash sauté, pinto beans and almond rice.
Consumers report purchasing more sandwiches away from home today than they did two years ago, due in large part to operators’ responses to demands for lower prices, greater variety, fresher fare, flexible portions and healthier items. Trends include greater customization and broader options—including shareable sandwiches, sliders and other mini sandwiches, ethnic sandwiches and wraps. Denny’s Fit Fare menu offers the Chicken Avocado Sandwich, a grilled seasoned chicken breast with diced avocado, pico de gallo, lettuce and sour cream on a whole-wheat bun, served with vegetables. Subway expanded its Fresh Fit menu with a Smokehouse BBQ Chicken sub filled with slow-cooked chicken in smoky barbecue sauce. And Arby’s introduced 500-calorie-or-less menu items licensed by the “Eat This, Not That!” book franchise, including Roast Beef Classic Sandwich, Jr Roast Beef Sandwich and Jr Ham & Cheddar.
Seafood is a recurrent theme in healthy main dishes added to menus this spring. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, for example, added new seafood plates including an under-575-calorie Enlightened Entrée of Hawaiian Mahi-Mahi—oven-roasted, glazed mahi-mahi served over stir-fried vegetables and roasted pineapple fried rice mixed with spicy soy-ginger sauce, slivered snow peas, red bell peppers and sesame seeds.
Independent restaurants have some distinct advantages over chains when it comes to healthy menu innovation. They can more easily incorporate fresh, seasonal and local ingredients that are in limited supply; they can respond to local trends and preferences; and they can quickly switch out menus to keep things interesting. On the other hand, independents don’t have the economies of scale or the access to nationwide consumer trend information enjoyed by chains. Another handicap specific to innovation around health and wellness is independents’ lack of reliable data on the content of calories, fat, gluten and so on in the foods and ingredients they use to create menu items. | ERIK BROCK, FOODIE EDITOR, SYSCO PORTLAND
Information from Sysco’s TrendSpotter, available at SyscoTableTop.com
, as well as Technomic, the industry’s leading fact-based consulting and research firm.
Be sure to check in with your local Sysco Marketing Associate who is continually trained on the most up to date sustainable products. They can also help you tap into a network of chefs, quality assurance professionals and other foodservice experts who can address each client’s unique needs and problems. SyscoPortland.com