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It’s an oft-cited statistic: One in four Americans eats at a fast-food establishment each day—that’s nearly 79 million consumers, considering the latest national population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And depending on one’s definition of “fast food,” that number could edge higher for the broader limited-service restaurant industry, which also includes fast casuals.
A majority of the 79 million–plus consumers, however, don’t believe food from these establishments is particularly nutritious. According to Gallup’s 2013 Consumption Habits poll, a whopping 76 percent of American respondents find fast food to be “not too good” or “not good at all for you.” That percentage hasn’t budged since 2003, according to Gallup data. These numbers raise the question: How far has the quick-service industry really come in terms of health? Consumer demand for better-for-you foods is high, but has that really translated to change on the menu?
Most industry analysts and operators would answer with a resounding “yes.”
“The industry doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work it’s doing,” says Maeve Webster, director at food industry market research firm Datassential. “The industry has done a lot of work in increasing the healthfulness of menu items. We certainly have some operators who have gone the whole hog on health, and that’s really their sole focus. But most other operators have made efforts to offer healthier alternatives or different ways to make items healthier by leaving things out or subbing in healthier ingredients.”
Webster points to the growth of various vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins on quick-serve menus as proof of the progress. While 10–20 years ago the focus revolved around weight loss or certain public health issues, like heart disease and blood pressure, today’s approach to health revolves around a balanced lifestyle, she says. The result has been more colorful offerings at quick serves, with unique vegetables that sometimes even take center stage on the plate. It’s led to the rise of a whole new crop of health-centric eateries and pressed traditional fast-food joints to adapt with more customizable menus and reformulated recipes. It’s even placed a microscope on kids’ meals, with the aim of educating a new generation of diners who may be the most nutritionally savvy yet.
According to Datassential’s menu-tracking data, top-growing vegetables in the quick-service industry include kale, butter lettuce, radish, arugula, serrano and ancho peppers, beets, and even sweet potatoes, eggplant, and edamame. Kale, the fastest-growing vegetable on quick-serve menus, has seen 835.4 percent growth since 2010.
“If you look at kale, something that’s on about 11 percent of all menus across the restaurant industry, it’s already on 5 percent of quick-serve menus; that’s pretty impressive,” Webster says. “The quick-serve segment is looking farther and farther ahead in the trend cycle and trying to adopt these trends earlier than it traditionally has.”
Staying ahead of consumer trends has been key for fast casual Tropical Smoothie Café, which opened in 1999 with the aim of assisting healthy lifestyles. The brand’s investment in forward-thinking R&D led to its popular UnBEETable Berry smoothie LTO, launched in August and made with fresh beets, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, and cranberries.
“It’s really about identifying the products that will fit into our consumers’ needs,” says CMO Lisa Wenda about the brand’s product pipeline. “Beets are really high in fiber and minerals; they’re just a great source of vitamins. And we’re continuing our promotions of superfood smoothies to highlight beets, kale, and carrots—ingredients that can give you all that nutrition and also deliver on taste.”
Tropical Smoothie Café reports that its top-selling drink is the Island Green smoothie, made with spinach, kale, mango, banana, and pineapple. In July, the brand made a splash with the addition of the Totally Green Smoothie LTO, a blend of cucumber, green apple, kale, spinach, celery, and kiwi. It also began to offer the Spinach & Kale Super Pack, an add-on available for any smoothie.
Produce has been a platform upon which many chains have taken the opportunity to diversify—even frozen-yogurt chains. Dan Kim, founder and chief concept officer of Red Mango, says his brand’s high volume of fruits and vegetables for fro-yo made it easier to develop health-conscious beverages and menu items for the chain’s expanded juice platform and new café menu.
“A lot of our produce in our café menu items is fresh and stems from the produce we use in our frozen yogurt, like strawberries,” Kim says. “For us, the biggest decisions were what produce we can bring in from our existing supply chain, what are certain ingredients we must have regardless of how quick they spoil, and what can we use across various dishes. Kale, for example, we used a lot in our juices and needed to find a way to leverage that popular ingredient in the café menu.”
Kale makes an appearance on the new fresh-squeezed juice menu and will also be the base of a vegetarian soup, Kim says. Other fruits and vegetables making an appearance on the expanded menu include kiwi, carrot, apple, orange, beet, ginger, pineapple, and mango. The growth of these ingredients is thanks in part to more knowledgeable suppliers, Kim says.
“When you’re dealing with a larger concept, you would love to offer everything you can, but you’re limited by what’s available and what your supplier can offer a lot of. It’s a very interesting dialogue with the distributors, with the farmers, to get what you need and sacrifice what you can’t,” he says. “The good news is that there’s a tremendous rise in popularity in fresh, organic fruits and tremendous popularity for things like ginger and kale and things we wouldn’t have even eaten a few years ago. And now we’re juicing them.”
The center of the plate has gotten a lot of attention in the quick-service industry as the healthy-dining trend surges forward. From the increased attention on turkey burgers and seafood to Greek yogurt and legumes, more quick-serve brands are aiming to deliver a powerful protein punch through their new product pipeline. Take, for example, Taco Bell’s updated Cantina Power Menu, which offers dishes like the Cantina Power Bowl made with double the usual serving of chicken or steak, Cheddar cheese, reduced-fat sour cream, and avocado ranch sauce, all adding up to nearly 30 grams of protein. The Mexican-inspired brand is also testing the addition of a Greek yogurt parfait to its breakfast menu.
But for all of the buzz around lean proteins, menu-trend data don’t show as much progress as some brands’ messaging might suggest. The three fastest-growing proteins on quick-serve menus, according to Datassential, are pork belly, Applewood-smoked bacon, and braised pork—not the healthiest of options. The data is slightly more health-forward among top national chains, with breaded fish, pollock, and smoked chicken taking the top three spots. Of the top 30 growing proteins across all quick serves, eggs are the only non-meat alternative, with fried eggs, egg whites, and deviled eggs growing 112.4 percent, 62.9 percent, and 41.9 percent, respectively, since 2010. Tuna and salmon dominate as the fastest-growing fish varieties among all quick serves, while ground turkey and turkey burgers have seen 45.1 percent and 34.3 percent growth, respectively, since 2010.