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.