The Healthy Trends That Are Dominating Menus

One of the most prominent industry buzzwords over the last decade, healthy appears in various forms on today's menus, as consumers reach beyond the basic term to also consider low-fat, natural, and organic dishes on menus. Inspiring the change is the public's growing awareness of healthy attributes, and consumers are subsequently leaning on restaurants to go beyond adding a side salad to create a healthy meal. 

That's according to Justin Massa, co-founder and CEO of Food Genius, a provider of menu data analytics, which released its 2014 Healthy and the "Health Halo" this week. The report investigates the terms, attributes, and language used by menus to spread the healthy message, as well as which ingredients and cooking styles consumers are responding favorably to. 

Food Genius gave FSR a sneak preview of its report, released today, to dig deeper into what restaurant operators can take away from the study.

The thrust of the findings, Massa says, is that restaurant operators need to be explicit on their menus about their wholesome offerings. "Don't just offer items that incorporate healthy ingredients," he says, "but also specify their healthy attributes in the item's name or description.

"Even terms like vegan have crossed from niche to be accepted in some segments," he adds. "Offering healthier options is something that every operator should do."

The other takeaway is that among all of the healthy halo terms Food Genius explores—healthy, low-fat, organic, lean, natural, and gluten-free—the top three to pay attention to are natural, gluten-free, and organic. 

"While their growth is different in different segments, they are all seeing meaningful growth and should be on the short-list for operators looking to add to or adapt their menus," Massa says. "Healthy is evolving to something more meaningful beyond 'healthy.'"

Healthy, Lean, Low-Fat

When the moniker healthy is used, 70 percent of the instances are in entrée item names and descriptions. Overall, healthy items are now on 8 percent of menus, up from 7 percent last year. 

If the uptick seems small, it's because large chunks of the industry already included healthy items on menus, Massa says. 

"What's happening is that those operators and some new ones are offering more specifically healthy items (which wouldn't alter the overall percentage of menu mentions) or shifting what's already offered because of the success or failure of existing items," he explains. 

In the casual and upscale-casual segments, the healthy dish with the greatest menu penetration is salad, by a wide margin; healthy salads on 30 percent of casual menus and 28 percent of fine-dining menus. The top ingredient associated with healthy on casual menus is a vegetable (75 percent), while in fine-dining, it's a protein (71 percent). 

Lean items, meanwhile, are available at 21 percent of restaurant locations, and its menu penetration remained steady at 7 percent year-over-year. Across all four segments, from quick-service to fast-casual and casual to fine-dining, beef is the top lean protein. It shows up on menus more than twice as often as any other protein, while pork comes in second place in each category.

Massa says he's not exactly sure what's driving the interest in lean meat, but part of the explanation may be a reaction to protein-rich, low-carb diets. "Those consumers looking for high protein counts will likely also be enticed by lean protein, but that is just our speculation and [an] opportunity for operators to experiment."

Low-fat items are on 4 percent of menus, and typically center on dairy elements, specifically milk and cheese. "This is an easy way for an operator to offer a healthier item—just swap out the cheese," Massa says.


Natural, Gluten-Free, Organic

These are three terms operators should pay extra attention to, Massa says. 

Like healthy items, natural items are on 8 percent of menus, and menu penetration has grown 1 percent over the past year. What's noteworthy is that the availability of natural items in restaurant locations grew 10 percent during the last year, jumping from 18 percent to 28 percent of locations.

Natural is most likely to be a descriptor for proteins, and beef, chicken, and pork, in that order, are the top natural proteins in every segment. Food Genius notes the frequency of natural claims increases with the service level, with quick-service being lowest (8 percent of "natural beef" claims) and fine-dining the highest (40 percent of "natural beef" claims). 

The top prep methods of natural ingredients are grilled and roasted, which are comparable to their non-natural counterparts.

While gluten-free items are on only 4 percent of menus, the availability of gluten-free ingredients in restaurant locations increased 5 percent over the last 12 months, hitting 9 percent. Salads and pizzas are most likely to be gluten-free items, and the average gluten-free entrée is $14.18—higher than the average price of any other healthy halo item. 

Food Genius cautions restaurant operators who consider adding gluten-free items to their product mix. The term has a specific definition under new FDA guidelines, requiring more vigor than other menu labels.

Organic items are on 9 percent of menus, up 2 percent from last year, and the availability of organic dishes also jumped 5 percent to hit 9 percent of locations. The organic label is most often associated with salads, sandwiches, soups, and burgers, respectively. Salad greens, tomatoes, and onions top the list of the most common organic vegetables on menus.

"Consumer demand for healthy has always been hard to peg," Massa says. "It's highly reported in surveys of consumers, but we all know that different choices are made when that same person who said they wanted to eat healthy walks in the door. 

"We wouldn't take menu penetration of health halo terms as an explicitly proxy for consumer purchasing, although we do think that the growth of terms like gluten-free—whose expansion has mirrored its growth inside consumer packaged goods—do reflect a growing consumer awareness of healthy attributes."

News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by WTWH Media LLC.