Have QSRs responded to demand for healthier items?

When 2013 restaurant trend predictions began pouring in, "healthier options" (or something of the like) was a recurring theme.

Technomic, for example, put veggies at the top of its trend list, followed by grains. Children's nutrition landed on the National Restaurant Association's radar for the second year in a row, and "super-nutritional juices and smoothies" appeared in Mintel's crystal ball.

While it's always tricky to gauge "healthy" eating trends during Q1 — when consumers are more likely to follow New Year's resoutions and restaurants are launching Lent-friendly seafood dishes — this year's pace seems more accelerated than usual.

GrubHub, for example, keeps track of "healthy takeout orders" and has found that such requests are up more than 50 percent since January 2011. Such orders were up 10 percent nationwide in January 2013 compared to the same period last year.

With the quarter wrapping up this week, how is the QSR segment fulfilling these demands so far this year?

Recent product launches on trend

As a "perceived healthy" offering, smoothies have been making their way onto QSR menus since 2010, when they debuted as part of McDonald's McCafe line. The item's ubiquity has been solidified with launches from brands such as Burger King and Baskin-Robbins.

The Dairy Queen system began rolling out Orange Julius Premium Fresh Fruit Smoothies and Julius Originals at all DQ locations in the United States and Canada late last year, as well.

"This is a perfect addition to our menu for customers who want a healthier quick snack or a treat at any time of the day," said Barry Westrum, executive vice president of Marketing for American Dairy Queen Corporation.

Burger King just added a Turkey Burger to its menu for the first time ever. The fire-grilled turkey patty is topped with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, red onions and mayo served on a warm, artisan-style bun. Additionally, the chain's new Veggie Burger features a MorningStar Farms Garden Veggie Patty topped with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, ketchup and mayo served on a toasted sesame seed bun.

Carl's Jr. debuted turkey burgers in 2011, and more recently expanded the line with the launch of its charbroiled jalapeno turkey burger in December. The newest addition to the award-winning charbroiled turkey burger line comes in at 490 calories.

Carl's Jr. and Hardee's also promoted their new charlbroiled Atlantic cod fish sandwiches in Q1. The sister brands claim to be the first in the national QSR segment to offer a charbroiled fish sandwich — not battered and deep fried. The offering is 420 calories and includes a charbroiled Atlantic cod fillet, tartar sauce, sliced tomato and lettuce, all served on a honey wheat bun.

Wendy's has rolled out new multigrain flatbread grilled chicken sandwiches, complete with a spring mix and tomatoes.

McDonald's added new sandwich wraps to its permanent menu. The three varieties of the tortilla-wrapped entrée feature fresh vegetables, grilled or crispy chicken breast along with signature sauces such as seasoned rice vinegar, sweet chili, or creamy garlic.

The offerings mark McDonald's first permanent menu item to include sliced cucumbers and its first hand-held entrée to include a fresh spring mix. Varieties range from 360 to 600 calories depending on customer's choice of grilled or crispy chicken. Additionally, on April 22, the Golden Arches will introduce a new lower-calorie twist on its classic Egg McMuffin: The Egg White Delight.

Dunkin' Donuts has found a niche with its line of bakery breakfast sandwiches. The chain recently introduced a new, under 400-calorie turkey sausage breakfast sandwich as part of its DDSmart Menu, introduced in 2008.

Quiznos introduced a honey bourbon chicken sandwich in January, which features oven-roasted chicken and is topped with tomatoes, red onions and lettuce and served on toasted artisan bread. The option comes in under 400 calories.

El Pollo Loco introduced a new citrus mango tostada salad, with citrus-marinated, fire-grilled chicken, handmade citrus mango salsa made with slices of real mango and avocados sliced by hand, served in a crispy tostada shell with low-fat citrus vinaigrette.

Finally, Auntie Anne's Pretzels rolled out honey whole grain pretzels in response to a growing demand for whole grains. The new offering features a hint of honey and real whole grain dough, and makes up one daily serving of whole grains, six grams of fiber and is 300 calories. It has also been labeled with the Whole Grains Council stamp of approval because it contains 67 grams or more of whole grains per serving.

"The research and development teams at Auntie Anne's have worked endlessly to create this pretzel flavor that not only meets the lifestyle needs of consumers desiring a freshly-baked, better-for-you snack option, but one that also has the signature, indulgent taste our guests have come to expect," said Heather Neary, Auntie Anne's chief marketing officer.

A confluence of trends — health and control

Although healthier options have popped up here and there on QSR menus, it's unlikely they'll become the rule rather than the exception. Though more consumers now want healthier options, that doesn't mean they'll always choose those options when dining out.

"Ultimately what operators need to keep in mind is consumers indulge when they go out to eat — they can eat healthy at home. But they want to have healthful options when they are out because it gives them more control over their decisions," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic.

Offering such choices, therefore, seems to be making good business sense according to a new study by the Hudson Institute. Its report, "Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business," analyzed the largest QSR chains and found those that have been increasing the amount of lower-calorie options within the past five years have had better sales growth, larger increases in traffic and stronger gains in total food and beverage servings.

"Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won't expand their waist lines, and the chains that recognize this are doing better than those that don't," said Hank Cardello, lead author of the report, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.

In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains evaluated from 2006 through 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages outperformed those that were not lower-calorie. In addition, chains that increased their servings of lower-calorie items saw a 5.5-percent increase in same-store sales, compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings; and a 10.9-percent growth in customer traffic, compared with a 14.7 percent decline.

Read more about health and nutrition.

Photo: McDonald's chicken McWraps.

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