Nutritious meals struggle for traction on menus

by Keith Nunes
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CHICAGO — The difference between the types of meals consumers say they want from restaurants and what they actually order is at the heart of a new survey by Mintel Menu Insights, a division of the market research firm Mintel International. Only one in five consumers rank health attributes as an important factor when ordering dinner.

Far more essential are taste and hunger satisfaction, selected by 77% and 44% of those surveyed, respectively. And even though over three-quarters of those surveyed said they would like to see more healthy items on the menu, only half said they usually order them.

"There’s definitely a dichotomy between what people say they want and what they actually do when it comes to healthy restaurant eating," said Maria Caranfa, a registered dietitian and director of Mintel Menu Insights. "Over 8 in 10 adults told us it’s very or somewhat important to them to eat healthy, but when it comes to dining out, most people are really looking for taste, texture and experience. So healthy menu items need to perfect the balance between nutrition and flavor."

Over half of the adults surveyed said eating healthy at restaurants is more expensive than not eating healthy. Additionally, even though restaurant operators are offering more nutritious food and beverage options, they are still vastly outnumbered by menu items that are not as nutritious.

During the first quarter of 2009, only 5% of new menu items carried a nutrition claim, according to Menu Insights data. On the other hand, nearly one in five new menu items were fried.

Despite the differences, Menu Insights said restaurant operators are under pressure to add more nutritious options. The government is trying to increase nutrition labeling on menus and the Mintel survey showed that more than three-quarters of respondents want more menu transparency when it comes to nutrition.

"Restaurants need to make ‘healthy’ food appeal on flavor, freshness and satiety benefits, not just on calorie and fat information," Ms. Caranfa said. "People seek fresh ingredients and more vegetables in healthy food, both of which can be promoted in a positive way. Healthy dining should be as satisfying as ordering from the regular menu."

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