Consumers Say They Want Healthy, but Aren't Buying It

Survey Finds Taste, Cost Prevail in Making Menu Choices

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- A note to food marketers: Consumers who say they want healthy options are unlikely to actually order off the healthy menu.

Many restaurants are bending over backwards to offer lower-calorie options including KFC, which launched a grilled-chicken platform this spring.
Many restaurants are bending over backwards to offer lower-calorie options including KFC, which launched a grilled-chicken platform this spring.
"There's definitely a dichotomy between what people say they want and what they actually do when it comes to healthy restaurant eating," Maria Caranfa, a registered dietitian and director at Mintel Menu Insights, said in a statement. "Over eight in 10 adults told us it's very or somewhat important to them to eat healthy, but when it comes to dining out, most people are really looking for taste, texture and experience."

According to Mintel, price was also a deterrent in selecting better-for-you meals. As cash-strapped consumers tighten their belts, they're choosing cheap and tasty comfort food.

Mintel found that only one in five consumers rank a food's health attributes as an important factor when choosing dinner. But 77% of them thought about "taste," and 44% considered "hunger satisfaction." And a particular problem for restaurants: While roughly 75% of those surveyed said they would like to see more healthy options, only 51% order from those selections.

Making the effort
With increasing scrutiny from media, nutritionists and consumer groups, many restaurants appear to be bending over backwards to offer lower-calorie options. Kentucky Fried Chicken launched a grilled-chicken platform this spring. This is the second go-round for the chicken chain, which previously offered rotisserie items but pulled them for lack of demand. Even the most successful healthy food introductions stop short of being truly transformational. McDonald's salad relaunch brought many women back to the category, and its chicken sandwiches have spurred growth, but the Big Mac is still the chain's marquee menu item.

There's also a perceived affordability hurdle with healthy food. Most consumers -- 54% in Mintel's survey -- think of healthier options as being more expensive. "When it comes to healthy menu items, the prices are often higher and less promoted," Ms. Caranfa said.

To be sure, standard fare still dwarfs healthier options. Mintel, which tracks restaurant menus to identify flavor, preparation, and food and pricing trends, found that through March, only 5% of new items carried a nutritional claim, while one in five new items was fried.

But don't discount another sea change as more markets adopt calorie labeling on menus. New York City now posts calorie information, California is following suit, and other regions are considering similar measures. After all, even though consumers may choose a fatty food anyway, Mintel found that over three quarters of American diners want "more transparency on food health."

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