Making 'better-for-you' options a priority

by Keith Nunes
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Legislative and societal trends have prompted several restaurant chains to focus on menu balance and bringing "nutritional responsibility" to their offerings. On the legislative front, pressure for food service operators to list calorie counts on menus has been one driver for change while concern about obesity is another.

This past July, in a report titled "The future of eating," The NPD Group identified foods perceived by consumers as being "better-for-you" as being among the fastest growing trends in the food industry.

Companies attempting to take part in the better-for-you trend include Starbucks Coffee Co., Romano’s Macaroni Grill and IHOP Corp.

In June, Starbucks, Seattle, said it was seeking a better balance between taste and health and wellness with the revamping of its menu. The company created what it called "nutrition guardrails" with the guideline of new food products not to reach more than 500 calories.

With the national launch of its new Italian Mediterranean menu this month, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Dallas, introduced what it referred to as nutritionally responsible menu items.

"Our vision is for people to savor the great taste of fresh, delicious food and feel good afterwards," said Brad Blum, chief executive officer. "The Mediterranean style of cooking has been around for centuries. Our new menu offers simple recipes prepared by our chefs using high quality ingredients that let the natural flavors come through."

The Mediterranean style of cooking is featured in 7 new recipes and 14 improved recipes that deliver on consumers’ taste expectations while simultaneously providing nutritional responsibility, according to the company.

Calories have been reduced from 25% to 65% in the 14 improved recipes, while saturated fat grams have been reduced by more than 70% in 5 of the menu items.

Improved recipes include scallops and spinach salad and seafood linguine. New recipes such as grilled chicken spiedini, pollo caprese and lobster spaghetti have been added to the menu.

The entire menu evolution inspired by the Italian Mediterranean style of cooking is expected to be completed by the summer of 2010, according to the company. Changes will include additional new menu items as well as improved recipes for signature Romano’s Macaroni Grill items.

IHOP Corp., Glendale, Calif., also introduced several all-day menu options this month. In addition to its traditional menu items, the company has extended its "For Me" selections, which give consumers choices that are lower in fat, calories or carbohydrates.

For Me added options include the whole wheat french toast combo with egg substitute and turkey bacon; "just right omelets" with egg substitute and fresh fruit; and a turkey bacon omlelet.

Whether these new menu efforts will pan out is a matter of debate. While the NPD Group forecasts better-for-you menu trends as being a growth category, Technomic, Inc., Chicago, revealed research in August that showed the recession is adversely affecting consumers’ healthy eating behavior. Results from the food industry research firm’s recent consumer survey show that while over half of consumers are more concerned about their eating habits today compared to a year ago, 70% said healthier foods are increasingly difficult to afford, 53% claimed they often purchase less healthy foods because they cost less, and 44% said their budgets prevent them from eating healthier foods.

"Healthy eating is still important to consumers, but evidence strongly suggests that it is a lower priority these days," said Bob Goldin, executive vice-president of Technomic. He added that "consumers are economizing in their food expenditures and believe that one way to do so is to spend less on healthy foods. It’s an unfortunate development."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 29, 2009, starting on Page 22. Click here to search that archive.

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