Look, up on the table! It’s a burdock. It’s a plantain. It’s … superfood!
Although there’s nothing really super-heroic about eating nutrition-rich fruits and vegetables, the foods give customers an opportunity to pursue healthier options at a time when many Americans are trying to rein in their eating habits. As such, these ingredients are showing up on more limited-service restaurant
Statistics from MenuMonitor, a menu-tracking service from Technomic, show 1,750 menu items at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants that contain at least one of the top natural superfoods, such as kale, spinach, blueberries, and avocados. That doesn’t include tomatoes, which are generally considered a superfood as well.
The growth counters the idea that limited-service eateries primarily focus on taste and not nutritional value.
“There is still a big stigma regarding healthy food, because many consumers believe it doesn’t taste good or isn’t indulgent,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. Now, however, with growing transparency of menu items’ calorie counts and nutritional values, restaurants have become more creative and innovative in using and marketing superfoods.
“Just look at what’s going on with omega-3,” Tristano says. “It’s an example of taking credit for what you are already serving, in this case fish. Increasing the marketing around the healthfulness of the food seems to be a trend among restaurants.”
It’s difficult to define superfoods because there is no such food classification, says Jamie Pope, a registered dietitian and instructor of nutrition at Vanderbilt University’s School of Nursing.
“These fall into the classification of functional foods,” she says. “They can be whole foods, but they also can be enhanced or fortified foods. They’re really foods that have nutrients or other qualities that give them benefits above and beyond basic food values.”
Not all food items with the super claim stack up. True superfoods, Pope says, have a proven density of nutrients without many calories.
As Dan Kim, founder and chief concept officer of Red Mango, succinctly puts it: “The common thread is that it’s food packed with a lot of good stuff in a small serving.”
One indication of the nutrition concentration is the color of the fruit or vegetable. Pope says people should eat “a rainbow color of foods—dark green, red, orange, yellow, blue—because each features different types of phytonutrients.” Phytonutrients are natural antioxidants in fruit and vegetables that promote good health and prevent disease, she says.
“Natural color is a good indicator of good nutrition value,” confirms Laura Pensiero, a limited partner and chef at Just Salad, a restaurant chain that focuses on quick, better-for-you offerings, including salads, wraps, soups, and frozen yogurt. The company, which has 10 locations in Manhattan and units in Singapore and Hong Kong, features a wide range of superfood ingredients on its menu.
Just Salad also offers at least one “nutritionally forward,” chef-designed salad each quarter, says Pensiero, who is also a registered dietitian. In autumn, the chain uses the “S” word in its Fall Superfood Salad ($7.99) and Wrap ($7.69). The menu items have kale, spinach, red cabbage, roasted butternut squash, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, wheatberries, fresh beets, and grilled tofu. All of these items are considered superfoods.
Just Salad’s rotating high-nutrition salads are popular, Pensiero says. “Some people are intimidated about how to use these ingredients, so it’s great to have them all in one bowl.”
Freshii, a fast-casual chain that emphasizes fresh food, looked for a way to incorporate super fruit and vegetables into its everyday menu and make it simple for diners to put the items in a bowl or a salad.
The chain also has marketing materials in each restaurant that let diners know about the superfoods. “The idea is to bring education to the stores, remind customers that we carry these items and they can try them,” says Mia Jacobs, project manager at Freshii.
Several superfruits, such as citrus fruits like lemon, are part of everyday cooking and food preparation at most restaurants. Kale, meanwhile, is one of the most popular super vegetables, carrying high amounts of calcium, disease-fighting antioxidants, and immune-boosting vitamins A, C, and K. Kale also contains lutein, which promotes skin and eye health, and is a good source of various minerals.
Kale is one of the cruciferous vegetables—others include cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts—that are considered cancer-preventing foods.
The vegetable’s nutritional value stays intact whether it’s served raw, steamed, or stir-fried.
“Kale is so powerful, we refer to it as the beef of veggies,” Jacobs says.
There are plenty of health benefits inherent in other fruit and vegetable superfoods, and many of them can be found in salads and sandwiches, as well as some other menu items, at a number of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants.
One of the hottest superfoods today is avocado. Best known as the heart of guacamole, the fruit is loaded with vitamins A, B-complex, C, and E, as well as potassium, iron, fiber, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. “Fat can sometimes be a scary word, but eating these ones aids cognitive function,” Jacobs says.
Avocado is an ingredient in dishes ranging from the Soft Shell Crab Roll ($8.99) at SanSai Japanese Grill to Smashburger’s Avocado Club burger ($5.99) and the Anaheim Scrambler egg dish ($6.89) at Corner Bakery, according to MenuMonitor.
Blueberries are packed with cholesterol-lowering antioxidants and are high in potassium and vitamin C. They are popular in bagels, muffins, and pancakes, and can be found in various salads, as well as menu items like the Blueberry and Blackberry Steel Cut Oatmeal ($3.29) at Jamba Juice, according to MenuMonitor.
Another berry, the cranberry, best known as a Thanksgiving relish, is also high in antioxidants. In addition to being an ingredient in bagels, salads, and muffins, the berries make up one of the available toppings on Village Burger Bar’s Bespoke Burgers ($6.20).
Soy, or tofu, is a protein that is considered a superfood because it is high in several nutrients.
“Soy often crops up because one of its approved health claims is a link between 25 grams of soy a day and reduced heart disease,” Pope says. “But that’s a lot of soy.”
Tofu is a popular option in Asian limited-service restaurant dishes, including several at Pei Wei Asian Grill, or in vegetable menu items, such as the Tofu Power Plate at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill ($9.99).
Meanwhile, spinach, which has plenty of vitamins A, C, and K, is rich in flavonoids—antioxidants that have anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer qualities. But perhaps the most ubiquitous superfood at restaurants is the tomato. It is simple, common, and a significant source of lycopene, which has been studied for its potential to prevent prostate cancer. Lycopene is absorbed particularly well when the tomato is cooked.
Tomatoes are used in soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza, and spaghetti, among many other menu items.
“Studies have shown that eating four servings of tomato-based foods [daily] will result in a reduction in the chance of prostate cancer,” Pope says.
Another superfood that is growing in popularity at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants is the sweet potato, particularly in the form of fries. The tubers are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber and have anti-inflammatory properties. Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, El Pollo Loco, and Smashburger are among the several
brands that offer sweet potato fries as seasonal or limited-time options.
Pomegranate has also taken hold with consumers in recent years. The fruit is found in a wide range of juice drinks and other beverages, and is particularly high in antioxidants and rich in vitamins A, C, and E, as well as folic acids.
Red Mango, which has been serving frozen yogurt—itself a superfood—and smoothies since 2007, began offering a pomegranate variety early in its history. “When we started, we wanted to make the frozen-yogurt category an exciting, healthy way for consumers to indulge,” says Kim, whose Dallas-based company has 220 units that feature 10 rotating flavors daily. “Health has always been part of Red Mango.”
The company teamed up with POM Wonderful for the highly concentrated pomegranate juice Red Mango uses in frozen yogurt and smoothies. Pomegranate is the chain’s second-best seller, Kim says. Other superfruit flavors that are rotated in and out include blueberry and tangerine. The regular pomegranate frozen yogurt sells for $3.50, and the
smoothie is $4.
Juice and smoothie chains also feature these and other superfoods among their natural and enhanced menu items.
Superfoods from around the world—some of them rarely found in America—are part of the menu at Bowl of Heaven, which began serving açai bowls two years ago. “We incorporate fresh fruit, frozen fruit, and superfruit,” says cofounder Dan McCormick, whose background is in public speaking as an anti-aging expert.
Açai bowls are popular in Brazil and have gained a following elsewhere, including in Hawaii, where McCormick got his idea for the chain. The bowls’ base ingredient is a blend with frozen, pureed açai berry, the fruit of the açai palm tree in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. The fruit has antioxidant benefits.
Every bowl and smoothie at California-based Bowl of Heaven, which has five locations in three states, includes a blend of açai and six other fruits: gac, Alaskan blueberry, Siberian pineapple, cili fruit, and maqui and goji berries. Among the most popular bowls are the Sea Sider ($7), which adds strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana, and vanilla almond milk to the basic blend. It is topped with strawberries, coconut, flax seed, granola, and honey.
The Popeye ($7) adds strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, banana, and apple juice, plus fresh kale and spinach. It is topped with banana, flax seed, granola, and honey.
Superfoods are likely to grow in popularity as more people learn about them and their health properties. Pope is teaching a course on nutrition, health, and lifestyle—including a lesson on superfoods and functional foods—on Coursera, a company that teams up with top universities around the world to offer free, non-credit courses
She has about 33,000 students signed up.
“The interest has been amazing,” she says.