The perceived healthfulness of menu items flagged with such traditional labels as “low cholesterol” and “low carbohydrate” is rebounding as baby boomers reconsider what they should eat in their 60s and 70s, according to Technomic’s new 2016 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.
Though many operators are currently highlighting natural attributes to meet younger consumers’ health concerns, the new data show that other health descriptors are what engage boomers—who still retain the greatest buying power for restaurants. Here are the three traditional health claims that were shown to be gaining in importance.
1. Cut the cholesterol
More than four-fifths of consumers (83%) now say that low-cholesterol food is healthy, up from 76% of consumers who said the same in 2014. Baby boomers are driving this perception, with 86% of that age group identifying low-cholesterol claims as healthy. Boomers, who are between the ages of 51 and 70, are likely increasingly required to maintain low-cholesterol diets for health reasons. More women than men in this age range consider low-cholesterol ingredients to be healthy, though women tend to voice greater concerns around health claims in general.
Boomers are actually the least likely of any generation to pay more for these low-cholesterol claims, despite the perceived health benefits. While 72% of boomers say that low-cholesterol claims would make them more likely to purchase food items, only 28% say they would pay more for them. Restaurants aren’t going to be able to set a premium price on this fare if they want to appeal to this demographic.
2. Cut the calories
With more restaurants voluntarily revealing calorie counts on their menu—and the disclosure becoming mandatory next year—diners are becoming wary of calorie-laden meals. More consumers now (78%) than two years ago (72%) consider low-calorie food and beverages to be healthy. Nearly two-fifths of consumers (39%) also say that when they want to order healthy menu items, they choose options that fall within a calorie threshold they’ve set for themselves.
While 71% of all consumers say they would be more likely to purchase food and beverages that are low in calories, diners from 18 to 34 years old are the most willing to spend extra money for these options. These younger consumers place the most importance on watching calories when they go out to eat, as well as when their kids go out to eat. Nearly half of all millennials (46%), the highest proportion of any generation, believe it should be mandatory for restaurants' kids menus to meet certain health guidelines with regard to fat and calories.
And operators are starting to take note. Pennsylvania-based Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar added a handful of low-calorie kids menu items earlier this year, upon joining the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell Program. This spring, the emerging Denver-based concept Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli launched an "Over 20 Under 600" menu, with 20 items that are less than 600 calories, including globally inspired salads and sandwiches. Another up-and-coming concept, Iowa-based Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream, rolled out a new pizza crust option that has 30% less calories than its traditional crust. Allowing customers to customize their dishes and create lower-calorie options will especially appeal to younger consumers, who care the most about both customization and calorie counts.
3. Cut the carbs
Carbohydrates are the third “C” in the trilogy of health claims consumers are red-flagging. The health perception of low-carb fare is rising, with 74% of consumers identifying low-carb callouts as healthy this year, compared to only 66% in 2014. A low-carb count is closely tied to a high-protein count, and this year, consumers consider low-carb and high-protein callouts to be about equally as healthy.
In fact, Technomic asked consumers what type of ham and cheese sandwich they would order at a restaurant if they were trying to be healthier, and above all options—including a low-fat, low-sodium option; a low-calorie option; and a natural and organic option—consumers say they would order the ham and cheese sandwich with added turkey.
Old Carolina Barbecue Company in the Midwest taps into the demand for both low-carb and low-calorie fare with its customizable Carolina Choices Menu, released earlier this year. The chain lists its lowest-calorie entree options as well as its low-carb side options, and full nutritional information is available on its website.
Consumers’ demand for more traditionally healthy ingredients will place more pressure on operators to provide greater nutritional transparency and more customizable options. And if they don’t already do so, it will spur them to develop more traditionally healthy ingredients.