The impact of consumer health perceptions on the foodservice industry is evident as of late. Within the past year, at least eight leading limited-service chains have announced some sort of pledge to remove ingredients from the menu that consumers view as unhealthy—most notably meat from animals that were given antibiotics.
These developments are in line with one of Technomic’s key trends for 2015, as noted in the “Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report”—‘Healthy’ means antibiotic-free.” This is a top-of-mind concern for consumers, most likely as a result of the growing public awareness surrounding the harmful misuses of antibiotics in both people and animals.
In late 2014, Technomic released its updated “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report,” featuring data from a nationally representative sample of more than 1,500 US consumers. The report reveals that two in five consumers cite a rising concern over food additives. Additives essentially are any substance, ranging from preservatives to antibiotics and steroids, which alters a food’s properties in some way.
In fact, about three-fourths of consumers are more willing to purchase food or beverages described as preservative-free, hormone-free or antibiotic-free. Interestingly, consumers are more likely to purchase items that explicitly are described as lacking additives, rather than those which only imply a lack of additives with descriptors like “natural,” “unprocessed,” “clean” and “real.” Consumers likely are more wary of claims that are not regulated by the government.
As a result, a growing list of leading chains recently have committed to removing additives from either some or all of their menu items. Just this spring, Pizza Hut committed to removing artificial flavors and colors from its US pizzas by the end of July. Sister brand Taco Bell aims to remove the same components from most of its menu items—along with trans fats, palm oil and high-fructose corn syrup—by the end of the year.
Antibiotics, hormones and steroids also can be detrimental to animal welfare, underscoring the increasing role animal husbandry plays in health concerns. Starbucks recently signed a sweeping humane practices agreement with the Humane Society of the United States. In addition, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Noodles & Company all have made commitments to use only antibiotic-free chicken, and Carl’s Jr. launched an All-Natural Burger, made from grass-fed, free-range beef without added hormones, antibiotics or steroids.
As demand for additive-free food continues to grow, it makes sense that consumers also increasingly demand to know what’s inside their food—to see if it contains additives or not.
The 2014 “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report” confirms that the majority of consumers would like restaurants to be more transparent about menu items.
Consumers expect restaurants to be transparent and demonstrate their commitment to clean, healthy and socially responsible food though labeling and certifications. They also want access to available nutritional information, whether it’s posted on the menu board or available via technology.
Operators can meet these needs with mobile apps and website redesigns that allow customers to customize their meals based on calorie count and nutrition; tabletop tablets can also provide instant nutritional information. For example, Corner Bakery Cafe’s recently revamped website has a calorie-range selector, as well as a menu-filter function that lets guests search for vegetarian, vegan, low-fat and gluten-free options.
Taste and Health
Overall, consumers prioritize a mix of indulgent and healthy fare for foodservice occasions. Indeed, consumers say fewer than half of their recent restaurant food or beverage purchases were healthy (4½ of 10); they chose to order an unhealthy meal instead—largely due to cravings or a desire for a treat.
Nevertheless, nearly two-fifths of consumers say that they would be more likely to visit a restaurant that offers some healthy options, even if they don’t end up ordering something healthy. Health is clearly a strong traffic driver—especially among women and consumers aged 25–44.
Of all health claims measured by Technomic, consumers say they are most likely to purchase items that are fresh, rich in nutrients, and high in fruit and vegetable content. This is likely because these claims best represent the sweet spot between taste and health. On the other hand, traditional health claims, like fat- and sugar-free, do not drive food purchases as much as they used to, as consumers generally rate these food items poorly for taste.
Technomic data shows that the top growing health concern—additive-free fare—also conveys positive health and taste implications to consumers. Restaurants and retailers will need to focus more on these types of claims in order to meet current health needs and drive traffic and sales.
Consumers tend to order healthy items least often from quick-service restaurants and most often from fast-casual and casual-dining concepts, and grocery-store prepared-foods areas. Knowing that health is a strong traffic driver, leading fast-food chains are playing catch-up with their segment counterparts by issuing a slew of healthful developments.
Consumers rank Subway and two top fast-casuals, Panera Bread and Chipotle, as the healthiest concepts measured. These fast-casuals both tout antibiotic-free proteins, while Subway’s motto is “Eat Fresh”—both of these claims signify positive taste and health to consumers, as previously discussed.
In terms of full-service restaurants, traditional casual-dining concepts with specialized menus comprise the majority of FSRs consumers report to be healthy. These are led by LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Olive Garden—all of which offer a special lower-calorie menu.
Finally, more than two-fifths (43%) of consumers who live with kids aged 17 and younger strongly agree that they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options for children. Quick-service restaurants also are attempting to draw in this parental clientele by revamping their kids’ menus to deliver an even stronger emphasis on health. For example, many leading QSRs have recently removed soft drinks as an option on kids’ menus, including Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
How are these health concerns impacting consumers’ eating habits? Technomic’s 2015 “Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report” shows consumption of seafood and vegetarian items modestly has increased during the past two years. About a third of consumers overall (34%) are eating more seafood items now than in 2013, with skews to young consumers aged 18–34 (39%). Further, roughly a quarter of consumers (26%) are eating more vegetarian or vegan items now than in 2013, with skews to Millennials (34%) and women (30%).
Three-fourths (75%) of consumers who have upped their veggie intakes are doing so for health. More than half of consumers say vegetarian items provide enough energy (58%) and are as satisfying as meats (51%). Seafood consumption also is largely motivated by health; Consumers say they are eating more of it, because they are trying to eat healthier (72%) and they are replacing meat with seafood (50%).
As a result of commodity price hikes and health reasons, beef and pork consumption have both decreased slightly during the past two years. Consumers may even be turning to seafood and vegetarian dishes over poultry options in light of these health concerns and commodity price hikes, as poultry consumption remains unchanged since 2013. Nevertheless, Technomic research reports indicate that chicken is still the most widely consumed protein overall, followed by beef, seafood, pork, turkey and vegetarian proteins (in that order).
Of these proteins, consumers generally are also showing preference for healthier cuts and preparations. For example, data from the 2015 “Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report” shows that the majority of consumers prefer white meat over dark meat for chicken. Further, despite the craveability of fried chicken, consumers prefer more healthful preparations for poultry, including grilling, barbecuing and baking.
What’s the Outlook?
The importance of additive-free food, transparent ingredients, animal welfare and—above all else—food that satisfies these health needs without sacrificing taste, will only continue to grow. Just this June, the White House announced plans to use meat and poultry from animals raised with fewer antibiotics at federal cafeterias serving government workers.
Expect to see these standards bridge across multiple non-commercial food segments, including schools and hospitals, alongside the restaurant and retail industry. Some other specific consumer-driven health trends to look for going forward include:
• For animal welfare, expect more attention to be paid to the management and care of dairy animals; greater interest in controlled-atmosphere killing for poultry; and more pressure on factory farming practices, overall, with increased commitments to phase out the use of crates and cages.
• More government-regulated health claims via certifications and labeling.
• Descriptors, like “local,” “organic” and “sustainable,” will lose their elitist attachments and become requisite to all consumers, not just activists or the affluent.
• More government investment in organic farming as consumer demand outpaces supply.
• Healthy, “fast-fine” LSRs will emerge, featuring made-to-order dishes with fresh, local and organic ingredients and upscale-casual-dining price points.
• Operators will silently reduce sodium and sugar content of menu items without undercutting consumer perceptions of flavor or taste.