Health-Conscious Diners are a Driving Force for Menu Innovation


Today’s diners are better educated about their food than they used to be, which has contributed to an increased demand for nutritious menu options. But a closer look reveals that, even with ready access to information, diners still have trouble separating food fact from myth and are as prone to jumping on board the latest diet trend as they ever were. Nonetheless, there’s growing demand for foods perceived (accurately or not) as healthy and the perception can be as valuable for restaurant operators as solid nutrition fact.

Consider the humble bowl, recently elevated to new prominence as a key menu-marketing tool; in every market segment, diners are more excited to eat menu items served in a poke-style bowl than on a plate — a phenomenon driven by the perception of health and wellness, says Robert Carter, managing partner at Toronto-based The StratonHunter Group. “If you have your food in a bowl, people think it’s better for you,” he says. “It does give that halo effect.”

Whether it’s based on accurate information or not, the healthy-food trend is no mirage. Technomic’s 2018 Canadian Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report found 25 per cent of consumers believed they were ordering healthy items at foodservice locations more often they had been two years ago.

“We’re seeing two major menu trends,” says Technomic associate editor Sophie Mir, “functional foods and beverages and plant-based selections.” Consumers are choosing functionality, “that is, ingredients that provide holistic gains,” she says, offering examples such as collagen and aloe — both good for the skin — and CBD oil for mood-lifting.

Carb Consciousness
Canadians are still following diets that restrict or eliminate meats, dairy or carbohydrates for health reasons. Although only about one per cent suffer from celiac disease, the Technomic report finds 33 per cent of diners (42 per cent of diners aged 18 to 34) agree gluten-free food and beverages are healthier.

“The gluten-free trend has had a lot more staying power than I thought it would,”
says Carter, adding this is another area benefitting from a “halo effect” of perceived
health benefits.

Lately, the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic or keto diet (which theoretically trains the
body to burn its own fat) has been having a moment. Such authorities as Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic say it’s unlikely to lead to long-term weight loss and may
actually cause some health problems. Nonetheless, consumers are keen on a plan that promises unlimited bacon and avocados.

“Keto is the new Atkins or Pritikin,” says Carter. “It’s piggybacking on gluten-free and
it’s going to be around for a while.”

A 2019 study, from Vancouver-based market-research firm Insights West of more than 1,000 Canadian adults found about 11 per cent of Canadians have tried keto.

Technomic reports a 26.7-per-cent increase in keto menu mentions over the past year. Toronto-based Unbun Foods, which supplies certified keto, paleo, grain-free and gluten-free products, is being embraced by foodservice chains. Pizza Pizza recently launched three new specialty pizzas using the “Uncrust” (starting from $13.99). Mr. Sub was the first chain to offer “Unbuns” nationwide, for a $2.99 upgrade. The Burger’s Priest, Firkin Pubs and the U.S.-based BurgerIM also offer them.

Chipotle Mexican Grill launched its very on-trend Lifestyle Bowls in January 2019, including not only a Keto Salad Bowl ($13.20), but also a Paleo Salad Bowl, a Whole30 Salad Bowl, a Double Protein Bowl, a Vegan Bowl and a Vegetarian Bowl. Last July, Blaze Pizza debuted keto-friendly pizza crusts and topping combinations and Eggsmart has a Keto Breakfast Plate and a Keto Bacon Cheeseburger Salad. The plant-based beverage-and-wellness company Greenhouse has just released its bottled, dairy-free Ketolatté with coconut MCT oil and almond butter ($7).

Plant Power
But the Big Kahuna of health trends is still the plant-based movement. Although the Insights West study found only about five per cent of Canadians are currently following vegetarian diets, Technomic’s 2019 Canadian Centre of the Plate Consumer Trend Report finds 32 per cent of consumers say they’re eating more vegetarian or vegan options compared to two years ago.

The rapid rise of plant-based products from companies such as California-based Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Just (which makes plant-based “eggs”) is taking place mainly in the QSR market, where they’re simply being substituted for familiar offerings with a very wide appeal.

Since A&W rocked the QSR world with its plant-based Beyond Meat Burger in 2018, numerous chains have added menu items with plant-based faux meats, eggs and cheese. Most recently, in January of this year, McDonald’s tested its Beyond Meat “P.L.T.” (Plant. Lettuce. Tomato. $5.99) in Ontario; The WORKS Gourmet Burger Bistro unveiled its Beyond Sexy burger ($15.47) and its Knock Your Plants Off Vegan Bacon Cheeseburger ($17.84); Burger King recently began to test the Impossible Croissan’wich in select U.S. markets; while in February, Wendy’s began serving The Plantiful plant-based burger — a recipe it developed in-house.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are now facing competition from a number of developing brands, including MorningStar Farms’ Incogmeato, Kroger’s Simple Truth, Sweet Earth Awesome Burgers, Hormel Foods’ Happy Little Plants and Maple Leaf subsidiaries Lightlife and Field Roast Grain Meat Co. Also, Mir predicts “restaurants will start to create their own plant-based meats. We expect to see operators conduct their own research and create their own plant-based brands to stifle competition.” She also forecasts operators will launch plant-based milks, cheeses and items such as seaweed-based gelatin for marshmallows.

So far, “ironically, the QSR category has really capitalized on [the trend] and now the higher-end restaurants are having to catch up,” says Carter. “Chefs are being challenged more to develop plant-based menu items at a much higher level.”

But for innovative chefs, creating plant-forward menus is a pleasant challenge. “We’ve seen our salad program become more dynamic and varying; cutting our salad blends with torn fresh herbs like mint, parsley and basil adds a real freshness and uniqueness to each bite,” says executive chef Jonas Grupiljonas of Toronto’s Drake Commissary. Grains and legumes come to the fore in dishes such as The Drake Hotel’s Butternut Squash Falafel Bowl with mixed greens, pomegranate, Green-Goddess dressing, pickled turnips and cilantro ($19) or Folded Eggs with smashed chickpeas, wilted spinach and herbs, avocado, radish, serrano peppers and rye ($16) at the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, Ont.

Vancouver diners have fine-dining options such as Au Comptoir’s winter-squash risotto with raclette and walnut ($26) and Chambar’s pot au feu aux légumes with butternut squash, brussels sprouts and sesame-roasted root vegetables in a mushroom-and-miso broth ($28). In Halifax, Stories offers a forest-mushroom shepherd’s pie, with roasted cauliflower, “a collection of vegetables” and almond Romesco sauce ($18).

“One of the fastest-growing new restaurant concepts is the quick- service, fully vegetarian restaurant,” notes Carter, citing Montreal-based Copper Branch. “Moving forward, we’re going to see more of the Copper-Branch type of formula,” he says.

“The bigger message is that consumers are more open to these very specialized health-and-wellness trends and we’re going to see more of these flavours, food styles and health benefits come at a micro level,” says Carter.

Written by Sarah B. Hood

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