A recent survey from consumer, product, and media intelligence researcher Mintel International found that taste and hunger satisfaction trump nutrition in the eyes of average American diners when selecting menu items at restaurants.

According to the Mintel Menu Insights survey, 77 percent of participants choose items at restaurants based on taste, and 44 percent choose based on hunger satisfaction. Only 20 percent of survey participants choose an item based on its nutritional value.

Part of the reason Americans tend to look less for nutritional value in menu items rather than taste and hunger satisfaction is price—according to the survey, 54 percent of respondents acknowledge that eating healthy at restaurants is costlier than not. Additionally, 57 percent of respondents acknowledge that they are spending less at restaurants this year than last year because of the economy.

Though these numbers might suggest a decline in the interest in healthy foods, information from the Mintel study and another consumer study suggest differently. According to the Mintel study, 77 percent of diners would like to see more nutritional options on menuboards. And research from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2009 Food and Health Survey shows that 57 percent of American consumers describe their diet as healthy, while 64 percent are taking steps to improve the healthiness of their diet.

“There’s definitely a dichotomy between what people say they want and what they actually do when it comes to healthy restaurant eating,” says director of Mintel Menu Insights and registered dietician Maria Caranfa in a company release. “Over eight in 10 adults told us it’s very or somewhat important to them to eat healthy, but when it comes to dining out, most people are really looking for taste, texture, and experience. So healthy menu items need to perfect the balance between nutrition and flavor.”

By Sam Oches