Restaurants Ready to Help Diners Keep their Healthier-Eating Resolutions

January 25, 2012

Restaurants Ready

Restaurants ready to help diners keep their healthier-eating resolutions

It’s time again for the January Effect — that brief but intense interest in healthier eating that always sweeps the country this time of year.

In case you haven’t noticed, restaurants everywhere are introducing new menu items with fewer calories, less fat or reduced sugar.

The press releases and ads began piling up like a snowdrift in my inbox as soon as Christmas was over.

Among them was one from Pei Wei — the quick-serve little sister of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro — touting a new “stock velveted” option for its chicken dishes, which significantly reduces their fat content. For seven of the dishes, the fat reduction is 30% or more.

“Instead of wok-seared using our soybean oil,” the ad says, “we steam the tender chicken in our vegetable stock seasoned with onions and ginger.”

For the Caramel Chicken, the velveted option means 17 fat grams per serving instead of 26 — and 390 calories instead of 500. Mandarin Kung Pao Chicken ordered velveted style has 19 fat grams instead of 27, and 360 calories instead of 470.

Starbucks has rolled out a new Skinny Mocha weighing in at just 110 calories for a 12-ounce “tall” size. The company calls it the “perfect mix of espresso, bittersweet skinny mocha sauce and steamed nonfat milk … lightly topped with foam.” Its original Caffé Mocha ranges from 290 calories (with whole milk and whipped cream) to 170 calories for a nonfat-no-whip version.

Applebee’s is bragging about three new complete entrées — including starches and garnishes — totaling less than 550 calories each: a garlic-marinated 7-ounce sirloin, sizzling Asian shrimp-and-broccoli and sizzling chili-lime chicken.

The new items give it a total of five entrées under 550 calories, including its signature sirloin with garlic-herb shrimp, which was its best-selling entrée in the first two months of 2011. It was the first time in company history that “a lower-calorie entrée was the best-selling independent menu item,” the company says.

The list could go on and on.

The increase in supposedly healthier, lower fat dishes began last year — or at least there was an uptick in menu descriptions of them, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant industry research firm.

Its MenuMonitor database, which tracks trends and terms on the menus of some 2,000 restaurants, found that the words “low fat” increased 33% on menus last year, compared to 2010, while the terms “fat-free” or “nonfat” went up 12%. The phrase “no sugar” also increased by 51%, the data showed.

“Operators are increasingly interested in touting healthy benefits on their menus,” Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano noted in the report, which emphasized that the restaurant industry is ready to help diners keep their healthier-eating resolutions for 2012.

The trend is likely to continue this year, if for no other reason than the expected implementation of federal rules requiring chain restaurants to post some nutritional information on menus and menu boards. (The rules were supposed to go into effect in 2011 but were delayed because too many requirements were unclear.)

“Companies are trying to get ahead of the menu legislation by offering more items that are low-fat, and making their menus more transparent,” so customers know more about what they’re ordering, said Technomic consumer research manager Kelly Weikel in Chicago.

But whether we’re really ordering more of those better-for-us menu items is far from certain.

“It’s hard to tell,” Weikel said. “Even if people say they want to buy healthier food more often, they often don’t. One thing we know, though, is that consumers like to see (a health choice) on the menu. They want to go to a restaurant offering healthy options, but they may order an indulgent, craveable item. You might even go in thinking you’ll order something healthy — but then you get something else.”

And pretty soon, before we know it, here comes another January, and we get to try it again.

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