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.

Premium produce

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.”

Powerful protein

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.


“The focus on protein is exaggerated for most consumers,” Webster says. “Few consumers need as much protein as they’re led to believe they need.”

According to a report from the National Research Council’s Panel on Macronutrients, the recommended daily allowance of protein for adults ages 18 and older ranges from 46 grams for women to 58 grams for men. The average American consumes 111 grams of protein daily, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“From a nutritional standpoint, most people get enough protein. It’s easy to get, especially with the American way of eating. The most important thing is to really look at sources of lean protein—that’s seafood, lean chicken and turkey, beans and legumes, and low-fat dairy products,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, founder and president of Healthy Dining, an organization that helps restaurants evaluate nutritional information and maintains a website of healthy offerings for consumers. “A bigger public health need is the sodium in protein.”

Salt has been a leading point of change in the quick-service industry, but a lot of the sodium reduction has happened behind the scenes. Chick-fil-A, which introduced a new grilled chicken recipe in April, is quietly cutting sodium across its whole menu, including a 25 percent reduction in breads and 10 percent reduction in dressings and sauces. Taco Bell and Subway each declared their intentions to cut sodium across their menus in the coming years, but without major public announcements.

Boston Market took a holistic approach, trimming salt from a dozen menu items, including its chicken and fan-favorite gravy, and removing salt shakers from tables.

“Customers did not seem to notice the decrease in sodium,” says George Michel, Boston Market’s CEO. “And when we removed the salt shakers from our tables in 2012, the response was overwhelmingly positive. We have since rolled out sodium-reduction changes in all 458 restaurants and are on track to reduce total sodium across our menu by an average of 15 percent by the end of the year.”

There has been some pushback against cutting sodium from operators and consumers alike who claim that lower salt levels lead to less flavor. Jones-Mueller says that’s hardly the case and points to a study conducted by Healthy Dining and the National Institutes of Health, through which 300 taste-testers were invited to try multiple dishes with varying amounts of sodium.

“We worked with taste researchers at Cornell to evaluate how consumers liked each of the different versions of the items, and we found that, [for] almost every single menu item, taste testers liked the reduced-sodium version better than the original version,” she says. “I think that’s such great leverage for restaurants now to really understand that they can start reducing sodium, and American consumers are accepting that.”

Meanwhile, operators continue to focus on cutting calories as caloric information becomes increasingly available. A recent study from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health found that new menu items added at chain restaurants between 2012 and 2013 contained on average 12 percent fewer calories than older items.

A new generation

For all of the newfound acceptance for low-sodium foods, lean meat cuts, and new produce varieties, there remains a key menu component overlooked by most quick-serve establishments: the kids’ meal.

Justin Massa, cofounder and CEO of Food Genius, a foodservice insights organization, says healthy kids’ meal development has gone in two directions. “On the one hand, we definitely see an effort at chains trying to offer healthier options or healthier add-ons for kids’ menus, but they don’t seem to be removing the hot dogs, the nuggets, and the mac and cheese. The center-of-the-plate item seems to be staying the same, and the side options are where operators are tacking on healthier items.”

According to Food Genius’ menu-tracking data, menu items containing fruit have exploded on kids’ meals in the last 12 months at dining establishments with an average entrée price less than $12, rising from 36 to 57 percent. Chicken has grown from 47 to 57 percent in the last 12 months, and “low fat” claims on kids’ menus are up 109 percent in the last 12 months, to 46 percent of all kids’ menus.

The Kids LiveWell program, launched by the National Restaurant Association three years ago with Healthy Dining, established a voluntary program that restaurant chains could join to promote the healthful items on their kids’ menus that meet certain nutritional criteria. The program has grown to include 42,000 dining locations across the U.S., including several limited-service chains, like Moe’s Southwest Grill.

“We know 43 percent of our customers visit us with a child under the age of 12, so they want to make sure their kids are eating well also,” says Paul Damico, president of the fast-casual chain. “We see kids’ menus as a component that’s just as important, if not more important.”

Moe’s was an early adopter of the Kids LiveWell nutritional criteria and highlights its signature kids’ combo, Moo Moo Mr. Cow, on each menu. The approved combo offers a kid-sized burrito with rice, beans, shredded cheese, and a choice of chicken or beef, alongside black beans and a drink. Black beans can be swapped for a cookie or vegetable sides.

Whereas fast casuals like Moe’s are leading the restaurant industry in both growth and commitment to health, Massa says it’s important that more quick-service brands get on board healthier dining as well.

“The question on our minds is, Are those healthy chains going to be constrained by the dense, urban areas where those higher concentrations of health-conscious consumers are, or will they be able to work in suburban neighborhoods?” Massa says. “Not many of them have expanded into those locations yet. We’re still unsure what the growth potential is for those health-centric concepts.”

The growth of fast casual could one day plateau. But the healthy-dining movement will continue to evolve, perhaps taking on new forms in the next decade as restaurant operators address their consumers’ needs and adapt to lifestyle changes.

Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Story, Boston Market, Moe's Southwest Grill, Red Mango, Taco Bell, Tropical Smoothie Cafe