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Grooming flavor profiles in the menu-labeling era

Most restaurant operators are looking long and hard at flavor profiles and calorie counts in this age of menu labeling. Posting the calories of restaurant menu items has been the law in parts of the country for several years, and before long, it will be required nationwide for chains with 20 or more units.

However, even smaller operators are voluntarily displaying calories due to consumer demand for this information. In fact, research suggests that being transparent about calories and offering lower-calorie alternatives is meaningful to customers and can actually serve as a traffic and sales builder as well as a marketing tool for operators.

A study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that an estimated 57.3 percent of adults in 17 U.S. states used menu-label information for restaurant ordering in 2012.1 The proportion of menu-label users ranged from a high of 61.3 percent in New York to a low of 48.7 percent in Montana. Additionally, women were the most prevalent users of menu labeling in every state, with an overall rate of 66.8 percent. New York had the highest proportion of female users of menu labeling with 71.0 percent, followed by Maryland with 68.0 percent.

Similarly, a study by the Hudson Institute, an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C., analyzed data from NPD/Crest and 21 major restaurant chains last year. The study found that between 2006 and 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages were the key growth engine for the restaurants studied.2 In fact, restaurant chains growing their servings of lower-calorie foods demonstrated superior same-store sales growth, increases in restaurant customer traffic and gains in overall restaurant servings.

But while consumers are becoming more mindful of what they eat and choosing healthier alternatives to things like French fries and carbonated soft drinks, they certainly haven’t forsaken flavor—it’s still the primary driver behind restaurant orders. That’s why the Holy Grail of menu making is creating foods that are full of flavor but still better-for-you options.

For operators, now is the time to groom the menu to prevent giving customers calorie shock at the point of purchase. By regularly analyzing recipes and ingredient lists for the flavor/calorie relationship and going through the ingredients one by one, operators can find alternative ingredients that deliver high flavor with fewer calories. Even something as simple as switching to a mayonnaise with less calories and fat for sandwiches and salad dressings makes a significant improvement on the menu board.

The judicious addition of ingredients such as olive oil, whole grains and fresh produce can add robust flavor as well as a healthy halo to menu items. Experiment with fresh herbs and spices and global flavoring agents such as sriracha, Thai fish sauce and curry paste that ramp up flavor with negligible calorie addition. Look for seasonal vegetables and fruits and use them when they are most abundant and flavorful.


1Restaurant Menu Labeling Use Among Adults – 17 States, 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 11, 2014
2Lower Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business, Hudson Institute, February 2013

This post is sponsored by Kraft Foodservice

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