Superfoods have swept the culinary world into a frenzy, enticing consumers with a taste of the exotic and courting them with nutrition and functionality, to the point where restaurants across the country are trying to stake a claim in this fledgling movement.
Quick-service restaurants are keeping in stride, and many have ventured beyond the common açai and goji berry superfruits, as well as the kale super vegetable. Many quick serves are now leveraging a wider spectrum of superfoods, using whole grains, nuts, and seeds in fresh and innovative ways.
“I get so excited when I see quick-service restaurants featuring ancient grain salads and more plant-based choices,” says Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today. “It is a reflection that more people are interested in eating more plant-based foods. Surveys show that 47 percent of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal a week. I think there is a growing interest in eating more whole-plant foods for health.”
Palmer says the dietetics and nutrition community is not enthusiastic about the term superfoods, which implies miraculous benefits that may not be present, but says the consumer trend toward these healthier foods is still a big plus.
Elaine Tecklenburg, industry analyst and author of “Food Formulation and Ingredient Trends: Health & Wellness,” published by Packaged Facts in February, says superfoods are increasingly important on limited-service menus. The report mentions oatmeal as a whole-grain superfood that continues to gain momentum as more chains add it to breakfast and all-day menus.
“Oatmeal’s star status has been reported elsewhere,” Tecklenburg says, “with Datassential indicating it was the fastest-growing item on breakfast menus, up 15 percent since 2008.”
Several chains have taken this superfood to the next level, strengthening whole-grain oats by combining them with other popular superfoods. Starbucks’ Hearty Blueberry Oatmeal, for example, includes steel-cut oats, rolled oats, fresh blueberries, and an optional fruit, nut, and seed medley topping, while Wendy’s Fresh Baked Oatmeal Bar is made with whole oats, blueberries, and cranberries.
“Packaged Facts anticipates that oatmeal will continue to be an important whole-grain superfood offering for [quick-service] chains, with both its nutritional status and its broad taste appeal driving popularity,” Tecklenburg says. “Looking to the future, Packaged Facts expects new oatmeal offerings could well include savory mix-ins or toppings in addition to the customary sweet ones. This could help chains differentiate their offerings and potentially increase appeal at other dayparts and as a healthful snack choice.”
Palmer says whole grains can lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, and that eating a handful of nuts or an ounce of seeds a day is a heart-healthy habit.
Healthy quick serves are a natural fit for superfood menu items, as they’re already positioned to serve a health-conscious consumer who is more likely to seek out nutritious options. Daily Juice, a three-unit chain based in Austin, Texas, has always featured superfoods on its menu of juices, smoothies, and grab-and-go products, and is incorporating them into the new expanded menu that includes made-to-order items.
Along with super fruits and vegetables like blueberries, spinach, and kale, the Daily Juice menu offers a long list of super nuts (almonds, pecans, cashews), seeds (chia seeds, hemp, sesame, flax seed oil), and whole grains (quinoa).
“We use superfoods consistently to be the most densely nutritious, natural product ingredients we can add to juices, smoothies, and entrées,” says John Martin, CEO of Daily Juice. “Superfoods add to the nutritional profile of our products [and are] so densely packed that just a little goes a long way.”
This is especially true of nuts and seeds, which Tecklenburg says are being added to foods more often to enhance protein and provide polyunsaturated fats, vitamins, and antioxidants. Pistachios and chia seeds are especially popular right now, she says, adding that chia seeds’ high omega-3 fatty acid content, as well as antioxidants, iron, calcium, vitamins, and fiber, is significant.
Daily Juice maximizes both the health and versatility of nuts by blending them into smoothies, pulverizing them into pesto, tossing them onto salads, and even incorporating them into milk. “A lot of people don’t realize you can make milk with almonds or cashews,” Martin says. “The outcome is densely nutritious, with a lot of vitamins A, D, [and] E, and calcium for something that is dairy-free.” It also makes a smooth addition to tea or a latte, he says.
The best way to enhance both the health and the flavor of superfood menu items is through thorough research and development, the experts say. At Daily Juice, superfoods are sometimes added in small amounts so the flavor change won’t be too large, but the health boost is still there. Chia seeds, for example, have no flavor, Martin says, but “a lot of these are unpalatable. You just don’t nibble on spirulina. Some are strong and need to be mixed with other ingredients so you get the benefits of the superfood in a great flavor profile.”
Since Daily Juice is wheat-free, it uses quinoa, which acts like a grain and protein alternative, in its place. The popular menu item Quinoa Korma—quinoa garnished with red peppers, zucchini, onion, and pistachios, topped with a korma sauce made from cashews, cardamom, clove, turmeric, garlic, coconut oil, chili pepper, Himalayan salt, and agave—highlights this on-trend superfood.
Quinoa is one of the fastest-growing whole grains to sprout up on menus, finding its way into everything from tabboulehs to salads, sides, soups, and burgers.
The VegeFi Burger from South Florida–based BurgerFi, which has 14 operating locations throughout Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, includes a quinoa patty with white Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and BurgerFi sauce served on a multigrain bun.
“We decided to add quinoa to our menu because this healthy whole grain tastes great and, most importantly, it’s good for your health,” says Nick King, chief operating officer of BurgerFi.
King says quinoa is a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids and almost twice the fiber of most other grains. It’s also gluten free and one of the most protein-rich foods you can eat, he says.
Perhaps most importantly, quinoa is still flavorful. “With just one delectable bite, our guests quickly take notice that our VegeFi Burger was carefully crafted to ensure that taste was not sacrificed,” King says.
Whole grains are standouts among the superfood offerings at Tropical Smoothie Café. The Triple Berry Oat, one of the brand’s Supercharged smoothies, has earned a stamp from the Whole Grains Council for the inclusion of whole-grain oats and flax seed. It also features strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, whey protein, and Splenda.
Tropical Smoothie Café serves several sandwiches on its Nine-Grain Wheat bread, including the Cranberry Walnut Chicken Salad with tomatoes and field greens, and the Turkey Guacamole, with tomatoes, field grains, cilantro, and lime.
CEO Mike Rotondo says he would like to further expand the superfood offerings. “We’re trying to find ways of incorporating these in our menu,” he says. “[But] we’re not a health-food place. We provide better-for-you food with a tropical twist.”
Rotondo says flavor is paramount because guests won’t return if the food doesn’t taste good. That’s why the company focuses on using flavorful superfoods in smart combinations, like adding kale to spinach, mango, pineapple, and banana for a smoothie that “tastes amazing,” he says.
“Superfoods can add these different dimensions,” Rotondo says, noting that Tropical Smoothie Café adds nuts to a salad both for flavor and for crunch. “It’s the whole experience.”
At Freshii, an international franchise with more than 100 locations, superfoods give customers more opportunities to make nutritious choices. “Instead of just brown rice, we have quinoa,” says Mia Jacobs, project manager. “It’s a natural progression, but we try to be really innovative by introducing these foods in a simple way, like adding almonds to a Cobb salad, if that’s what you like.”
Limited-time offers allow Freshii to showcase newer superfood ingredients at a normal price. “It makes the customer really excited,” Jacobs says.
Sourcing these ingredients can be costly, Jacobs says, but she expects them to get cheaper as they become more popular.
Superfoods are well represented on the menu at Chicago-based Hannah’s Bretzel—with options including quinoa, seven-grain bread, nuts, and seeds—but founder Florian Pfahler is choosing not to market the term superfood too much.
“We talk about the functionality of food,” he says. “The way things are marketed is so extreme. I like to stay away from that. We put out a balanced menu with a focus on vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of nuts and seeds. They’re very important, but they need to be mixed up as an interesting variety of foods.”
Pfahler says the more interesting the variety of foods customers are offered, the more educated they become. He is particularly adamant about the importance of complex carbohydrates in whole grains, nuts, and seeds that provide energy longer than foods made with simple carbs like sugar and white flour. Desserts at Hannah’s are “a work in progress,” Pfahler says, because the team is experimenting with making pastries with alternative flours like khorasan wheat and spelt instead of bleached white flour, which he says is empty carbohydrates. “We want to steer our customers away from these without sacrificing taste,” he says. “It’s doable, and our customers really appreciate that and are increasingly looking for that type of nutrition.”
Hannah’s offers cookies, brownies, blondies, and blueberry and banana breads made with whole grains and quinoa flour. “They’re not a huge portion,” Pfahler says, “but you don’t need it when they’re nutritionally dense.”
All of Hannah’s sandwiches are made with either the bretzel bread or the seven-grain bread. The more health-conscious customer will choose the seven-grain, but Pfahler says it’s important customers make their own choice. Because choice is so important at Hannah’s, the company offers tamari nuts as a free alternative side for customers who don’t want the less healthful potato chips.
“They’re very expensive, but they’re such a good nutritious item, and not everyone is taking them,” Pfahler says. “It balances out. I think it’s very valuable to be transparent about what you do. Customers are appreciative and are willing to pay a little more.”