In the last decade, health and nutrition have become as much a part of the limited-service conversation as speed and convenience. Customers started to demand healthier menu options and more responsibly raised and sourced ingredients, and quick-service and fast-casual restaurants had no choice but to answer demand. Major quick-service brands like McDonald’s and Taco Bell are rolling out clean ingredients, while emerging fast casuals are innovating with vegetables and superfoods.
So where do we stand today with health and nutrition? Was it just a trend, or is the movement only getting started? We dug into the research to get a glimpse at what healthy means in 2018.
Progress is an arduous business, fraught with setbacks and contradictions. Take, for instance, the American diet. On the whole, U.S. consumers are eating better. In the decade leading up to 2012, the number of Americans with a poor diet fell from 56 percent to just under 46 percent, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association (jama) study published in 2016. And yet just 2 percent of us follow what the American Heart Association calls the ideal diet, which consists of lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish, and minimal sugar, salt, processed meat, and saturated fat. Unsurprisingly, class plays a huge role in these disparities. Just over 38 percent of low-income people (making $30,000 or less annually for a family of four) meet 80 percent of the ideal diet requirements, compared with 62 percent of high-income people (making $69,000-plus for a family of four).
The Future is Functional
According to Datassential’s 2018 report Plant-Forward Eating, three-quarters of all operators offer at least some kinds of functional or superfoods. Two-thirds offer mainstream varieties, such as salmon or blueberries, while just over one in 10 provides next-level superfoods like chia seeds or turmeric. Fast-casual restaurants—which are the most likely to feature superfoods—are seeing triple-digit growth in superfood penetration. Casual dining shows low penetration but the highest growth among segments; overall, most growth has come within the past three years.
Whether the future ultimately lies in feel-good or functional foods or some combination thereof, the limited-service industry’s affordability and accessibility puts it front and center in the quest to close the diet quality gap.
“Some great changes have taken place and are taking place in the restaurant industry. We’re already seeing quick serves adding more whole grains … and fruit and vegetable sides,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, president of Healthy Dining. “The bottom line is it absolutely has to take place. Operators won’t stay in business if they’re not in front of these trends and how people are eating and the level of quality they want in food.”
Veggie Burgers Grow Up
Dually touted as a solution to rising obesity and a path toward a more sustainable food system, plant-centric eating in the U.S. has perhaps never enjoyed quite the momentum it has right now. About a third of consumers are either limiting their meat and poultry consumption or eliminating it altogether in favor of plant-based alternatives—citing everything from the health to flavor to trendiness of these products, according to a February 2018 survey by Datassential.
Veggie-forward cuisine, environmental sustainability, and vegetarian and vegan foods also remain high on chefs’ hottest culinary concept trend lists for 2018, per the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot survey of 700 American Culinary Federation chefs.
Behind the scenes, manufacturers and chefs have been slowly transforming the once-sad veggie burger into a craveable modern marvel. On one side, a meat analog so convincing it “bleeds” like meat with a similar texture; on the other, a flavor-rich, handmade patty that celebrates the best of the wealth of grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables now at our disposal.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the manufacturing startups leading the charge in meat-free burgers with the taste and texture of beef. Impossible Foods, which started in 2011, has taken aim at chef-driven fast-casual and casual restaurants, starting with its 2016 debut at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi. It’s now in more than 1,000 restaurants, including Umami Burger. Its bleeding Impossible Burger contains wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes and gets its meaty texture and bloody look from a plant protein called heme. The company has raised about $275 million from heavy hitters like Google Ventures, Horizon Ventures, Temasek Holdings, and billionaire Bill Gates.
Beyond Meat, which launched in 2009, has set its sights more on retail—now in the meat case at more than 10,000 grocery stores nationwide. Some 10,000 restaurants, including Epic Burger and Bareburger, also sell the Beyond Burger, which is made from yeast extract, coconut oil, and peas, and bleeds thanks to beets. The company has raised about $72 million in total, with investments from meat producer Tyson Foods, Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Gates.
Numerous fast casuals have opted for proprietary, whole-food versions of the veggie burger.
Not one but two plant-based burgers headline the sandwich menu at New York–based vegan chain by Chloe. The classic blends tempeh, walnuts, and lentils bound with chia seed. It’s topped with a veganaise- and sriracha-based special sauce and roasted beet ketchup, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles on a potato bun. The guac burger patty combines sweet potatoes, black beans, and onion bound with chia seed, piled on a seven-grain bun with veganaise-based chipotle aioli, lettuce, tomato, onion, corn salsa, guacamole, and crispy tortilla chips. “We don’t make our burgers anything like a beef patty, and that’s the point,” says corporate executive chef Manuel Trevino. “We’re showing the world you can have great food without any animal products.”
San Diego–based Burger Lounge’s organic quinoa burger was created by culinary director Jim Little back in 2007 and has scarcely changed since, amassing a cult following among consumers and local media. Steamed organic Bolivian red quinoa and brown rice are blended with roasted mushrooms, onions, chipotle peppers, fresh zucchini, corn, and carrots, along with panko bread crumbs and trace amounts of cheese for texture and stability. The griddled patty is topped with organic American cheese, house-made Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato, and onion.
Smoked tempeh provides the bulk of Atlanta-based Farm Burger’s veggie burger, which is mixed with flaxseed and quinoa. Seasonal toppings vary by location. The Birmingham, Alabama, location includes burgundy onions and sunflower sprouts from local farm Iron City Organics and basil tofu spread.
Meat Them Halfway
The major quick-service chains may not be about to jump on the veggie-burger bandwagon, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to innovate with plant-forward options.
“Burgers are a ripe area for innovation in plant-based development, and where we see the most interest from consumers right now, along with willingness to pay a premium—especially from younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z,” says Datassential’s Marie Molde, a registered dietitian.
She cites Sonic Drive-In’s new Signature Slinger burger, introduced in March 2018. This “blended burger” that combines beef with mushrooms is under 350 calories and aimed at flexitarian consumers looking to cut down but not completely eliminate their meat consumption.
Menu Labeling Gets Personal
A lot has changed in the 10 years since Anita Jones-Mueller launched Healthy Dining Finder, the online search tool for dietitian-approved dining. Obesity is growing, as is the number of Americans with diabetes, pre-diabetes, and high blood pressure, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it’s not all bad news. Some 30 million Americans are embracing flexitarian and occasional meatless eating, per a Harris poll for the Vegetarian Resource Group. Healthcare as a whole is shifting its focus more toward prevention, which includes better nutrition. Health and fitness apps have exploded (up 330 percent in the past three years, according to Forbes), which may be less surprising given that 77 percent of Americans now own a smartphone.
“None of this was going on in 2007,” Jones-Mueller says. “Our culture is changing tremendously in the way people view food. Nutrition is one of the most—if not the most—important factors.”
If quick-serve chains weren’t already preoccupied with nutrition, the enforcement of the federal menu-labeling law in May 2018 thrust it into the limelight as operators scrambled to achieve compliance in time—and perhaps faced some uncomfortable realities about calorie counts in the process.
Enter MyMenu, Healthy Dining’s personalized nutrition platform that lets consumers build restaurant meals in real time based on individual health needs and lifestyle preferences. Customers start by setting their nutrient preferences using a slider function (for example, “below 650 calories” or “under 50 grams of carbs”), select items made without allergens, or set restaurant-specific preferences like sustainable seafood or vegetarian. They can also choose from a list of dietitian-vetted choices, like sodium savvy or weight control. A list of menu items meeting those criteria appears with photos, each with its own landing page where the customer can change the size or add protein, all while MyMenu recalculates nutritionals in real time.
The web-, tablet-, and mobile-enabled platform is integrated into restaurants’ websites and online ordering systems and customized based on each brand’s style and available nutrition information. The cloud-based program digitally stores, organizes, and maintains nutrition information through customized updates.
It took two years to develop MyMenu, and at press time, 10 restaurants had signed on to the platform, including California Pizza Kitchen, Sizzler, and quick serve Rubio’s Coastal Grill. Two of the brands logged 75,000 customer searches in the first two months alone, according to analytics tracked by Healthy Dining.
“Think where we’ll be five years down the road with customization, health, and fitness,” Jones-Mueller says. “This platform makes so much sense at this point in tech time.”