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The Chicken Abruzzi from Olive Gardenrsquos new Lighter Italian Fare section
<p>The Chicken Abruzzi from Olive Garden&rsquo;s new Lighter Italian Fare section</p>

Consumers' perception of 'healthful' broadens

Definition of healthful shifts to simply eating unaltered foods

It’s an ongoing challenge to keep up with the latest health trends in the food industry, but fortunately for restaurant operators, consumers’ definition of healthful food has broadened. It’s less about removing negatives or adding positives, and more about simply eating real food, officials at market research firm The NPD Group said.

“This whole health movement is definitely not a trend, but it has evolved,”
NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said. “We’ve entered a new phase in marketing health to consumers.”

According to Winning Back Health-Conscious Consumers, a new report from Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD, “healthy” is the No. 1 characteristic that consumers across all segments and nearly all demographics want to see more of on restaurant menus. Whether explicitly or implicitly stated, the survey reveals that consumers are seeking food that is “real.”

This shift follows several decades of consumers focusing on avoiding things in food that were perceived as bad, such as fat, cholesterol, sugar and, more recently, gluten, and in the past few years on choosing foods with positive additives, such as whole grains, fiber and antioxidants.

The growing concern about genetically modified foods, or GMOs, is one example of the shift toward eating more real food. Today, 57 percent of American consumers are concerned about GMOs, an increase from just 46 percent a decade ago, NPD found.

“We’re eating food as it was meant to be,” Riggs said.

When it comes to getting consumers to actually order healthful items — a difficult task in past decades — Riggs says operators will need to market these items differently.

“The old words made us feel like it wasn’t going to taste good,” she said. “If we express it in the right way they are going to order it.”

According to the report, the “right way” today would likely include words or phrases such as “real,” “fresh,” “all-natural,” “non-GMO,” “sustainable,” and “locally sourced,” to name a few.

Getting real

With consumers more informed than ever about what’s good for them, and demands for unaltered foods growing, many concepts are responding by adding more real food options to their menus, while others are launching campaigns to shine a light on existing real food practices.

Darden Restaurants

Better-for-you options have long been available at both Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. However, in the last year, Darden has revamped those offerings to meet consumers’ changing health demands.

“Consumers don’t have trouble finding better-for-you items, but trouble with craveable options,” said Cheryl Dolven, Darden senior director of health and wellness. “It’s not just about better-for-you, but better-for-you that’s craveable, desirable.”

To solve this problem, Darden has re-invented its better-for-you options at both concepts, offering a selection of items that Dolven says are “delicious and craveable, but with fresh cues.”  

Garlic Rosemary Chicken is among the better-for-you selections on Olive Garden’s new Lighter Italian Fare section. Photo: Darden Restaurants

For example, Olive Garden’s new Lighter Italian Fare menu includes dishes such as Chicken Abruzzi, made with grilled chicken in broth, cannellini beans, fresh kale, yellow squash and zucchini, and Garlic Rosemary Chicken, featuring caramelized garlic and rosemary atop grilled chicken breast and served with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh spinach.

LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Light and Flavorful menu features dishes such as Balsamic-Raspberry Seared Chicken, with white wine butter, raspberry drizzle and goat cheese crumble, and either green beans or broccoli; and Grilled Tilapia, with mango salsa over rice with fresh green beans.

Perhaps the biggest change is not the offer of these items, but their advertising.

“I think it is big,” Dolven said. “Now these are things we’re celebrating. It’s exciting.”


Although the quick-service burger chain has long been ahead of the better-for-you curve — it prides itself on having always used “high-quality real ingredients” and introducing the fast-food salad bar in 1979 — consumers haven’t always been aware of it.

To tell the story of its in a stronger way, Wendy’s recently launched a new integrated marketing campaign for its salads. Centered on the theme of  “Look Beyond the Bowl,” the campaign encourages customers not to judge a salad by the bowl it goes into, but by the quality and care of its ingredients. In March, the chain launched a web video series that offers a look at the farm-to-bowl journey of its fresh salad ingredients and a kitchen’s eye view of the making of a Wendy’s salad.

“People want to understand their food now more than ever,” said Shelly Thobe, director of culinary and product innovation for Wendy’s. “We continue to look for ways to address what our customers want. We’ll continue to deliver products that follow Wendy's standards of providing the highest quality, freshest ingredients.”

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