Consumers believe that more healthful menu selections are pricier than standard restaurant fare, making it tougher for operators to sell nutrition-oriented items to spending-shy guests, a new study from Mintel Foodservice said Thursday.
Moreover, Mintel said, the healthful dishes are absent from the popular value menus that restaurants have been promoting out of necessity throughout the downturn.
The sluggish economic recovery continues to influence consumers’ spending habits and overall value perceptions, causing them to shy away from healthful fare, which they believe comes with a more premium price tag, the Chicago-based research firm said.
According to Mintel, 41 percent of survey respondents said eating healthfully is more expensive than not eating healthfully. In addition, 14 percent of consumers surveyed said they look for the cheapest items on the menu when deciding what to order.
“This kind of price sensitivity gives rise to the concern that, as people cut spending, they are also likely to cut back on healthy food options,” said Eric Giandelone, director of Mintel Foodservice.
“The perception that healthy foods are also higher-priced is a challenge for restaurant operators, who are under their own pressure to add healthier menu items, not only from consumers but also [from] the government,” he said.
Restaurant chains with at least 20 locations nationwide are preparing to comply with the final set of federal menu-labeling regulations, which are expected to be issued later this year. The Food and Drug Administration currently is weighing comments from restaurants and other interested parties.
While consumers and regulators say restaurants should offer more fresh, healthful options on their menus, customers do not necessarily rate such menu items highly for satisfaction. According to Mintel, less than half of consumers surveyed said healthful meals rate higher than average meals in terms of flavor, satiation, appearance and taste.
Respondents’ suggestions for the ideal number of calories in a healthful meal yielded an average total of 510 calories.
Chains have responded by highlighting lower-calorie meals on special menu sections, such as Applebee’s Under 550 Calories menu or a 400-calorie Mini Bakes limited-time offer at Fazoli’s.
Culver’s Mindful Choices program featured a nutrition awareness outreach campaign with local hospitals and fitness centers while highlighting three meal options containing 500 calories or fewer: a single ButterBurger with a side salad and medium diet drink; the Beef Pot Roast Sandwich, side salad and medium diet drink; and the Flame Roasted Chicken Sandwich, side salad and medium diet drink.
Other chains have begun to promote more healthful items made from leaner proteins, like turkey burgers at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., or the Turkey Club SuperMelt sandwich at Friendly’s. Some brands have turned to smaller-portion items, like a 6-ounce filet mignon at Logan’s Roadhouse, to boost health perceptions.
While a disconnect between hearty and healthy remains in the consumer’s mind, restaurants still could promote freshness as a way to connote food quality to customers that are scrutinizing their dining-out purchases closer than ever before, observers say.
“People believe they will be sacrificing flavor and the expectation of a satisfying meal,” Giandelone said. “Since the idea of freshness is so closely tied with good health, restaurant operators can use fresh ingredients as a signal of high quality and high taste, while an emphasis on calories still allows for a focus on satiety and flavor.”
Forty-eight percent of consumers polled by Mintel said they choose dishes that include healthful ingredients, like lean protein and vegetables.
According to Mintel’s research, 81 percent of consumers said they were looking for tools to make their healthful-food purchase decisions easier, such as nutrition information kiosks or labeled menus, which 41 percent of consumers report using.
Another 29 percent of survey respondents said they pay attention to portion sizes and take home part of their meal to make their dining-out occasions more healthful ones.