Some of the latest popular menu descriptors are sending a message loud and clear. With terms like buff bowls, packed and powerful, and breakfast power sandwich finding their way to more menus nationwide, it seems protein has become a power food that consumers desire, whether they are following the Paleo diet, avoiding gluten, trimming fat, or just eating better.

But it’s not just any protein that consumers are clamoring for. Customer trends are shifting away from heavier, fatty proteins to those of the lean variety.

The 2015 “Center of the Plate: Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report” from Chicago-based research firm Technomic found that consumers consider seafood, vegetarian, or vegan entrées to be more healthful than beef, pork, and poultry options. In fact, “72 percent of consumers who increased their seafood purchases over the past two years say they did so because they are trying to eat more healthfully and consider seafood to be more healthful,” according to the report.

Another “Center of the Plate” report studying beef and pork found that “consumers who eat beef (91 percent) and pork (66 percent) do so as a center-of-the-plate option at least once a week”—levels that are down compared with 2012. Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights at Technomic, says health concerns are the top consumption deterrent for both beef and pork, but she adds that 84 percent of consumers find items described as “lean” to be more healthful, while 43 percent find lean to be tastier.

Lean protein is the best bang for the buck when it comes to healthy eating, says Rod Silva, who founded the fast casual Muscle Maker Grill in 1995. The concept uses only USDA-certified grass-fed beef and all-natural, skinless chicken, and it makes indulgent favorites like chili, nachos, and burgers with as much lean protein as possible.

“Lean protein directs everything we do because it is good for the body and it helps maintain energy levels,” Silva says. “We meet you at your lifestyle, which means whatever your eating preferences are, we can provide the best version of your favorite. If some of our customers aren’t going to give up burgers, we make the best version of a burger we can, with USDA grass-fed beef; turkey bacon; and a whole-grain bun.”

And lean protein isn’t just a matter of meat. Protein Bar, a growing Chicago-based concept, builds its menu around quinoa, a protein-packed grain, and is using it as a base for egg-white breakfasts, bowls, and burritos. Other lean proteins are offered, but quinoa is at the core of the cuisine.

More health-food concepts are using customization as a tool for offering better food choices, and lean protein options—both meat and grains—are a big part of that trend. For example, Roti Mediterranean Grill, a Chicago-based fast casual with a menu theme of “Food That Loves You Back,” allows customers to start with a pita sandwich, rice plate, or salad meal, then gives them add-on options like chicken (roti or kabob), steak, salmon, falafel, or veggies. Diners can then choose from among six sauces, six vegetable sides, and a few extras like Feta cheese and sumac-spiced onions.

Another upstart concept, Freshii, offers a build-your-own menu that features tofu, falafel, chicken, steak, and tuna as add-ons to any salad or wrap. Kale and quinoa are available as a base for bowls, and collard greens are used as a gluten-free wrap.

“More people are vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian. They’ve heard about meatless Mondays, and they are more aware of plant-based protein options,” says Andie Shapira, the in-house nutritionist for Freshii, where the tagline is “Eat. Energize.”

Shapira describes today’s health-minded eaters as taking a wider view of health and knowing more about quality of calories, processed foods, and sourcing concerns. The chain’s newest protein option, tuna, was introduced in March as a limited-time option (lto), but it may stick around because customers have responded well to the house-developed recipe.

“We use solid white albacore tuna and Greek yogurt to replace mayo for a creamy texture. It cuts the fat and isn’t heavy,” she says. “We add purple cabbage, green onions, shredded carrots, salt, and pepper, so it’s a like a tuna salad. It’s something that people can’t get anywhere else.”

Another lean protein—custom-smoked, hand-carved turkey—is now in the Freshii R&D pipeline.

Like Shapira, Rachel Derr, registered dietician at the online guide Healthy Dining Finder, sees an evolution in people’s knowledge of healthful eating. “Lean protein is required for everybody, and as diners know more about what types of calories sustain energy for the longest amount of time, they demand more options from animal- and plant-based sources,” she says.

Healthy Dining follows the USDA definition for lean protein, which dictates that it should contain less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol (both per serving and per 100 grams). Derr recommends offering as many protein options as possible to keep customers interested.

At Salata, a Houston-based, 42-unit “Next Generation Salad Bar,” 12 lean proteins—including grilled chicken, pesto chicken, baked salmon, and herb-marinated shrimp—give customers plenty of healthful options from which they can choose.

“Everything on the line has to be fresh, full, and fluffy,” says David Laborde, director of product development at Salata. “Everything has to work well with being served cold, so not all proteins work. We’ve worked hard to include vegan-friendly options based on customer demand. We did a lot of testing to find a baked falafel prep that isn’t too dense and that sits well.”


Laborde says salmon posed another R&D challenge, specifically in finding one that had the right moisture content without being too oily and one that maintained a good texture. Salata tested at least eight types and decided on an Alaskan salmon.

Chicken is Salata’s most popular protein and is served with a few flavor profiles: standard grilled, pesto, and chipotle. “We’re finding spicy resonates right now,” Laborde says. “Our chipotle ranch dressing is also a hit.”

Kitchen operations are important to the proteins served at Salata, where temperatures need to be closely calibrated and the cuts are carefully considered for presentation and texture maintenance. Training is critical to make sure the lean proteins are cooked to the right temperature and consistency. Salata recently made the commitment to put combi ovens in all locations to allow for several cooking techniques from one piece of equipment and to ensure consistency in moisture, texture, and even color. So far, the chain has retrofitted five stores and plans for complete retrofitting of all units. Combis are included in all new store plans, including the 10 opening this summer.

Operators, Derr says, “need to understand lean protein in order to prepare it well. Marinating is important; you need to be careful not to overcook and to use herbs and spices to maintain flavor without adding fat.”

Technique becomes particularly important when it comes to serving burgers, which typically need as much as 20 percent fat content to avoid a dry finished product. Wild Willy’s, a five-unit burger concept founded by Jim Williams in York, Maine, in 2001, proves that high-quality, lean meats and the right equipment can still deliver high-quality, juicy sandwiches.

As a 17-year veteran of the fast-food burger world, Williams saw how overcooking and rewarming burgers, as well as letting them sit in clamshell packaging, could alter flavor and texture. “Cooking on a flat grill isn’t the best way for burgers, but char-broiling lets the fat cook off, and the smoke puts the flavor back in,” Williams says. He also found a hit when he started serving bison burgers. “We started serving bison because it went along with our Western theme, but our customers loved the taste,” he says. “When they learned that it is lower in calories and high in good cholesterol, it became a great seller for us.”

The bison is also in keeping with Williams’ commitment to serving premium ingredients, like all-natural Maine-raised beef and Bell & Evans chicken, raised without antibiotics and with an all-vegetable diet. He finds that lean and high-quality usually go hand in hand, which is what consumers want.

“Lean chicken can dry out fast, too, which is why we marinate our 5-ounce fillets in a house-made red wine vinegar marinade,” Williams says. “It ups the moisture content, and with high heat char-broiling, we get a nice firm exterior and tender, moist interior.”

Even concepts known for their carbs are upping the protein quotient, fueled in part by the Paleo movement, the CrossFit crowd, and gluten-sensitive diners. Two years ago, Panera Bread revealed the secret behind its “secret menu”: higher-protein options. That included a Power Chicken Hummus Bowl with sliced all-natural chicken, cilantro-jalapeño hummus, baby spinach, cucumbers, diced tomatoes, red onions, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and fresh-chopped cilantro. Power breakfasts like the Egg White Bowl with roasted turkey, warm baby spinach, roasted peppers, and basil pesto are also a permanent feature.

In October, carb-centric Noodles & Co. made a splash with its “Buff Bowls,” noodle-free dishes that layer 2 ounces of spinach, double the usual vegetables, and meat or tofu for a carb-free version of the fast casual’s noodle-centric dishes. In keeping with Noodles & Co.’s global cuisine, the LTO line debuted with Japanese Steak, Tuscan Chicken, Bangkok Curry with organic tofu, and Pesto Pork. Chef Nick Graff, director of culinary research and development for the brand, says the bowls are doing well enough to be considered for a permanent place on the menu.

Pork is not a widely used protein in limited service, but it is one of the lower-calorie options on Noodles & Co.’s menu, with 150 calories per serving (grilled chicken has 110). Pork has been on the Noodles & Co. menu for about two years after some ideation with the National Pork Board. The R&D process developed a lean, slow-cooked product with light, neutral seasoning that works well with the chain’s custom sauces. The pork is pulled in-house and is all-natural, vegetable-fed, antibiotic-free, and hormone-free.

“All of our food is cooked to order; all of our dishes start out vegetarian and can be customized with meat, and most still stay under 500 calories,” Graff says.

The top-selling proteins at Noodles & Co. are steak, pork, and chicken, but tofu holds its own. It’s prepared firm, cut into small cubes, sautéed until golden brown, and seasoned with a sweet-salty soy molasses seasoning.

“People sub it everywhere. It’s not overwhelmingly Asian, and it works with a surprising number of global flavors in a broad menu,” Graff says. “Whatever you’re not eating, we want you to be able to eat here.”

Consumer Trends, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Story, Freshii, Muscle Maker Grill, Noodles & Co., Salata