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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.”