Healthy menu innovations trump diet fads

By Cari Price, corporate chef, Food IQ

It's no longer surprising when you sit down for dinner with a colleague or family member at a restaurant and notice them scouring the menu for something that they can eat. Then when they order they ask questions, complicate the process of ordering and end up with a customized dish just for them. Mintel Menu Insights' Restaurant Horizons: December 2012 report claims, "While many consumers like to indulge when they eat out, there is a growing segment of the population who searches for healthy foods at restaurants, and many more who want to indulge sometimes and eat healthfully at other times."

So what foods are these health-focused consumers looking for on restaurant menus? PR Newswire's Top Diet Trends for said that natural and simple foods with few ingredients are in, while low-fat and low-carb foods are out, and consumers will look to the wheat belly/gluten-free approach as well as commercial diet programs to lose weight. Also, fruits and veggies will remain king this year, and dietitians surveyed agree that eating more fruits and vegetables will have the biggest impact on improving American's diet and health in 2013 and beyond.

Healthy menu development can be a complicated venture for restaurants. The first hurdle is choosing the approach. There are many commercialized diets in which the longevity is unpredictable based on past experience. Then there's the expense of sourcing specialized ingredients, such as gluten -ree, low-fat, low-carb, or organic ingredients. A major consideration when it comes to gluten-free menu items is the added liability for cross contamination of wheat allergens., a A growing number of Americans, however, are eating gluten free not because of a severe allergy but because of intolerance, or even for weight loss.

With the passing of restaurant menu labeling and the increased number of smartphone applications, websites and social media outlets like Live Strong, Healthy Dining Finder, Paleo Go Go, consumers are definitely seeking out nutrition advice, information and community support. This increased knowledge about menu offerings and food is why chain menus have moved to low-calorie menus rather than diet centered. For example, Applebee's Weight Watcher-endorsed menu is smaller than ever, just three entrees, all labeled with the popular diet's point system, but Applebee's main focus for the new year is their 550 Calorie or Less Menu, which has been recently updated and is more likely than the Weight Watcher diet to draw in a larger group of healthy eaters. Another is the Cheesecake Factory with its SkinnyLicious menu consisting of entrees under 590 calories and appetizer items under 490 calories. Fazoli's has launched pasta dishes at 400 calories and even Carl's Jr. now has a turkey burger that registers under 500 calories.

These new concepts boast about high-quality rather than quantity, readily offer nutritional information and happily customize menu items for allergies and food preferences. The food offerings are often free-range, lean proteins that are raised hormone- and antibiotic-free. Other offerings include unique grains, organic or locally-grown produce, healthier oils, and the food contains little to no preservatives. Urban pL8, Sweetgreen, Freshii, LYFE Kitchen, Elevation Burger and even Chipotle are among those fast casual restaurants promoting this more sustainable way of eating for health, rather than restrictive diets that are often fleeting.

According to the Mintel report, 77 percent of survey respondents said that fast casual restaurant food is of higher quality than fast food, 73 percent perceive fast casual menus to be healthier than fast food and 58 percent said that fast casual restaurant food provides a better value than fast food. Consumers are educated more than ever about food and nutrition and seem to believe fast casual restaurants can deliver. Although menu development can be a challenge, many new concepts are proving that delivering quality, health and value is possible, all the while wowing consumers with new flavors, customization and unique environments.

At Food IQ, we excel at helping you create food with impact, food that starts with true insight into your business, its customers, and its competition. We have the ideas, the culinary skill, the experience and vision to help you connect with your audience. For food that's truly relevant, effective, and smart, the choice is easy. Food IQ.

Chef Cari Price is the Director of Culinary at Food IQ.

Cover photo: Courtesty of Flickr's avlxyz

Read more about healthy menu items.

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