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A new way to navigate healthy: How to capture today’s healthy consumer

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

What does the term “healthy” mean to today’s consumer? Datassential has been tracking the evolving perceptions and drivers of the term for years. Initially (“Healthy 1.0”), healthy products and menu items were driven by nutrition – low calorie, low fat, high fiber. The “bad things” were taken out and “good things” were pumped in. Then the discussion shifted to “feel good” terms like natural, organic, sustainable, local, and fresh. Now the concept of “healthy” is evolving further, focusing on functional foods and ingredients – energy, protein, superfoods.

To understand both the consumer and foodservice operator mindset concerning healthy foods, Datassential’s upcoming MenuTrends Keynote Report: The New Healthy dives deep into this category. Consumers certainly feel that they should be making healthier choices – 58% of consumers say that they need to eat a healthier diet than they currently do. An even larger percentage of consumers want to modify their weight; most want to lose weight (58%) while 8% want to gain weight (an area of the market often ignored by operators).

Yet, it has become an industry truism that consumers say they want healthy choices, but their purchase and exercise habits say otherwise. One in five consumers said they never exercise, according to the Keynote Report, and 27% said they exercise only once or twice a week. Meanwhile, operators like McDonald’s have continually maintained that healthy menu items like salads just don’t sell as well as burgers and french fries – salads comprised about 2-3% of sales at McDonald’s locations in the U.S. in 2013.

But are salads what consumers want in a healthy menu item? They certainly want food that tastes good – 84% of consumers say they would buy healthy products more often if they tasted better, and 31% of consumers strongly agreed with the statement. One way operators are responding to these preferences is with descriptive terms that showcase how a healthy preparation method can also add flavor – terms like “charred,” “slow-braised,” “flame-grilled” and “slow-smoked” grew fast on menus in the past year, joining preparation methods like “grilled” and “roasted” that are already common. Last year the chain Pollo Tropical included “flame-grilled citrus chicken” in a number of light menu items, while the Baby Kale and Farro Salad at Cosi featured a “charred tomato vinaigrette” for a salad that was “full of flavor.” Overall, 59% of consumers say they are interested in healthy preparation methods – it was the top “Healthy MegaTrend” that we tested with consumers.

Half of consumers are also interested in superfoods, which continue to trend on menus across the country – 77% of consumers are aware of them, and 33% say the term helps them differentiate and select healthy foods. At the Superfood Cafe, in Santa Monica, Calif., the entire menu is focused on ingredients like acai, goji berries, hemp and chia seeds and kale, while The Cheesecake Factory added a “Superfoods” section to its menu last summer with options like a “Super Antioxidant Salad” featuring spinach, kale, avocado, blueberries, sunflower seeds and almonds.

The evolution and perception of “healthy” is an area that the food industry can’t afford to ignore as health-driven fast casuals continue to pop up and grow across the country, while on-site foodservice segments like colleges and universities and hospitals begin to make “health and wellness” a primary consideration and focus. Consumers clearly value healthy foods – 70% of consumers told us they would pay more for healthy foods and ingredients.

Mike Kostyo is the senior publications manager at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about ordering Datassential’s MenuTrends Keynote Report: The New Healthy, contact Brian Darr at [email protected].


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