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10 healthful restaurant trends

SHAPE June 2015


Health is on the menu these days, wherever you look. Whether in the much-publicized form of nutritious kids' sections and gluten-free options, or “stealth health” initiatives like the blending of mushrooms with ground meat, health has emerged as a front-and-center concern for chefs and restaurateurs.

The industry wide embrace of nutrition-centric menu alternatives is in direct response to the consumer's growing concerns about health. Where previously healthful options were seen as something of an unexciting after-thought received indifferently by restaurant patrons, today's consumer — in particular, millennials — expect to find more creative alternatives on menus and they expect them to taste good.

“This marks a shift from previous generations,” says Annika Stensson, senior manager, research communications at the National Restaurant Association. “Today's consumers are looking for healthier options.”

Unlike previous, more half-hearted attempts by the foodservice industry to address customers' nutritional concerns, menumakers are taking the issue very seriously and  adopting a broader range of strategies to meet consumers' growing needs. Among them are:

Fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is being incorporated in more imaginative ways as chefs and restaurateurs realize that a plateful of gray, steamed vegetables is no longer enough to satisfy guests craving a meatless menu experience. Whether used in appetizers, entrées or desserts, fresh fruit and vegetables can be treated as inventively and as flavorfully as proteins — and often step in as center-of-the-plate items or the star of the show on Meatless Mondays. “Chefs are being challenged to make meatless entries more inventive,” says Todd Seyfarth, department chair/program director for the Department of Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. “And that is encouraging more people to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Smaller portions. While some guests continue to demand mountains of food on their plate, menumakers are beginning to downsize portions for those patrons who do not want to leave the table completely gorged. Even some chains are providing calorie-conscious diners with the opportunity to order menu items in variable portion sizes. The practice also addresses the increasing problem of food waste in restaurants by reducing the amount of uneaten food going out the back door to the dumpster each day, says Libby Miller, a nutrition and cooking coach in Philadelphia and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Menu transparency. Increasingly, health-conscious consumers want to know what goes into the foods they're putting in their mouths. As a result, a growing number of operators are taking steps to jettison food additives as well as discontinuing the use of genetically modified foods — even though they all may be perfectly safe — and opting  for more “natural” ingredients and alternatives. “People want to know what's on the plate and where it comes from,” says the NRA's Stensson.

Whole grains. Chefs and restaurateurs are turning to whole grains when they craft their menu selections. Less refined grains like faro, barley, quinoa and bulgur wheat are showing up in a variety of selections, from breads to salads to entrées, says Mills. “It's exciting because they tend to be more nutritious,” she adds. “They not only contain higher amounts of protein compared to regular pasta or white rice, they also have more vitamins and minerals.”

Buying local. Purchasing foodstuffs from local farmers or ranchers is emerging as one of the biggest culinary trends of the decade, Stensson says. According to the NRA’s What’s Hot 2015 Culinary Forecast, locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among the 1,300 chefs polled for the annual study. While farm-raised products may not necessarily be healthier than items that come from further away, consumers do perceive “local” as being “better-for-you.” “Local implies freshness,” Stensson says. Local also is seen by many consumers as being more environmentally friendly.

Healthful kids' menus. As nutrition-conscious adults begin to order differently from restaurant menus, they also are taking a harder look at what their kids are ordering. To be sure, we'll still be seeing chicken tenders and french fries on kids' menus, but also expect to see pizza crusts and hamburger rolls made with whole grains along with other selections like carrot sticks and milk. And like their parents, today's kids also are developing more sophisticated palates and consequently are increasingly opting for bolder flavors and ethnic preparations.

Legumes. Consumers are exploring more foods outside of their comfort zones, including legumes such as lentils, peas, soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans and peanuts. High in fiber and protein, and considered to be staples of many cuisines like Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, legumes and beans readily lend themselves to the trend of menuing more authentic ethnic dishes and global influences. However, Seyfarth says, the best way to use legumes and beans is to not highlight them. “Hummus is a good example,” he continues. “You don't need to tell customers it's made from chickpeas.”

Blending. Chefs are finding that by blending mushrooms with ground beef or turkey, they can create selections that are flavorful, moister, more nutritious and have a better texture, many say. Mushrooms lend themselves to the blending process because they contain a high proportion of glutamate, a naturally occurring compound directly linked to the taste sensation know as umami. While the blendability trend already has been embraced at schools and colleges, commercial foodservice operators also are introducing menu items that feature blended meat and mushrooms.

Gluten free. Offering gluten-free options has proved to be a popular trend over the past several years, but it now appears to be losing a little steam, Stensson says. Nevertheless, gluten-free selections continue to generate interest among many diet-conscious individuals who are not suffering from celiac disease but who are looking to benefit from the real — and perceived — health benefits associated with this wide-ranging trend. Meanwhile, how long the trend will last is anybody's guess, experts say.

Salt reduction. Health experts continue to caution that Americans consume far more salt than is necessary, blaming it for such health conditions as high blood pressure and hypertension. Increasingly, however, menumakers are pursuing ways to reduce salt in their menu items. The trend toward menuing more ethnic and full-flavored dishes is aiding in the reduction of salt, as chefs turn to more herbs and spices, fresh produce and fruit juices as low-sodium methods of enhancing a menu item's flavor profile. Seaweed, which is rich in potassium, can help to lessen some of the more unhealthy impacts of sodium when added to a dish, Seyfarth says.



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