While the meteoric growth of gluten-free retail products is well-documented, new research from Technomic shows that there has also been an “explosion of gluten-free items” on menus at limited service restaurants (LSRs) in the past two years.
In its ‘Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report’, Technomic notes that vegetarian claims have shown “robust growth over the past two years on leading LSR menus” while LSRs in the Top 500 segment have also developed a lot of new vegan offerings since 2010.
“However, the big story for LSR health claims is the explosion of gluten-free items on the menu”, says the report.
“Essentially non-existent as a health claim on mainstream menus just two years ago, there are now hundreds of LSR menu items described as gluten-free.”
Gluten-free items are now positioned as simply better-for-you choices
Strikingly, gluten-free is now regarded by many restaurant diners as a healthy choice rather than an option purely for celiacs, and is positioned on menus accordingly, says the report.
“Once promoted as a menu alternative to the small segment of the population that suffers from celiac disease, gluten-free items are now positioned as simply better-for-you choices that are generally perceived by consumers to be lighter fare."
And the growth in gluten-free offerings is happening at every level in the industry, it observes: “Next 250 and emerging chains are surpassing Top 250 chains in introducing gluten-free items, suggesting that this health claim has even more potential to gain traction on a wider scale over time.
“Limited-service pizza and sandwich chains, as well as full-service varied-menu operators, have been very active in their development of new gluten-free options since 2010.
“In addition to health claims around vegetarian, low-fat, fat-free, organic, natural and generally healthy ingredients, the pizza category stands out for its widespread listing of gluten-free as a health claim for crusts.”
Whole-grain claims have climbed by 266% on full-service restaurants menus since 2010
Natural claims are also becoming more prevalent on menus, and have jumped 62% at LSRs over the past two years, claims Technomic.
At full-service restaurants (FSRs), meanwhile, whole grain claims are flourishing, it says.
“MenuMonitor data shows that… whole-grain claims have climbed by 266% on FSR menus since 2010.”
Offerings described as ‘cholesterol free’ have more than doubled and ‘lighter’ claims were up 123% over the past two years on FSR menus.
‘Nutritious,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘better for you,’ are more appealing than ‘low salt’, ‘low-fat’ and’ low-sugar’
The Consumer Insights section of the report, which is based on findings from a national survey of 1,500 US consumers conducted in September 2012, shows that while two-fifths of consumers say they eat relatively healthfully at home, fewer than a fifth say the same regarding their away-from-home eating behavior.
Nevertheless, healthy menu options have the potential to act as a traffic driver for a significant proportion of consumers, stresses Technomic.
“Nearly two-fifths of consumers today—up from just a third of consumers polled in 2010—say they are more likely to visit restaurants that have healthy menu options, even if they do not end up ordering a better-for-you offering.”
Meanwhile, descriptions that convey a positive or balanced approach to health, such as ‘nutritious,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘better for you,’ are more appealing to consumers than descriptors that suggest something is missing from the food, it says.
By contrast, half of consumers polled said claims such as low salt, low-fat and low sugar detract from the taste of food and beverage.
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