Catering to Health-Related Diet Restrictions
U.S. consumers who are on controlled diets due to diabetes, celiac disease, food allergies and other conditions are finding more restaurants eager to accommodate them.
A growing number of Americans are on restrictive diets because of medical conditions including celiac disease, diabetes, food allergies and hypertension. Although some of these consumers say they find it difficult to dine out with dietary restrictions, the fact is that most still do dine out on a regular basis—and the vast majority would like restaurant operators to make it easier for them.
Most restaurant chains already disclose their food’s nutrition and allergen information to the public, yet some are going beyond merely providing the information and are demonstrating some best practices in how they serve customers with diet restrictions.
Dining Out on a Restricted Diet
Technomic recently surveyed 500 U.S. consumers and asked whether they or anyone in their household is on a controlled diet. Of this 500-respondent base, half were screened for having dietary restrictions in their household, meaning either the person taking the survey or a household member follows a special medical diet. This is not meant to suggest that 50% of the U.S. population deals with dietary restrictions within their household. However, previous Technomic research has indicated that about a quarter of consumers say that they or a household member must cope with a chronic medical condition that has dietary implications—whether or not a medical diet is actually followed.
Roughly one out of four of the consumers who are on a restrictive diet, or deal with a household member’s restricted diet, believes that these special dietary needs make it harder to eat out versus eating at home. The difficulty may be tied not only to what’s in the food, but also to the issue of nutrition/allergen disclosure. For operators seeking to accommodate those on restricted diets, a good first step would be to supply as much information as is feasible about what is going into each menu item.
Of course, on the flip side, 75% of consumers with diet restrictions do not think it’s difficult to dine out.
When restaurant-goers who are on special diets (or have a household member on one) dine out, they’re more likely to rely on themselves than on other people to ensure that they don’t eat something that will cause an adverse physical reaction. Asked what steps they take to ensure that their special dietary needs are met, the majority (68%) said they carefully read the menu and listed ingredient and nutritional information, making that the most popular action taken.
Thirty-four percent of those with diet restrictions say they alert the staff in some way, either by notifying their cashier/server when ordering, calling the restaurant ahead of time, asking to speak to the manager, or producing a card or bracelet indicating their allergies or intolerances. This is a fairly high percentage when one considers that just 15% of consumers on a restrictive diet said they strictly adhere to their diet.
Interestingly, 18% of consumers report that they take no special actions on these dining-out occasions. When consumers were asked to indicate their level of adherence to their special diet, seven out of ten indicated that they follow it but “indulge occasionally.” The 18% of survey respondents who say they do nothing about their special dietary needs while dining out may be part of this majority and view dining out as a time to indulge and not to worry about their restrictive diet. Others may be accustomed enough to their dietary restrictions that they habitually order something that does not violate these restrictions (such as simply broiled meat or fish with a vegetable side, for instance).
As the chart illustrates, 68% of consumers with household diet restrictions read the menu and listed ingredient and nutritional information. That means the restaurants they visit must first make this information available.
Technomic asked all of the panelists—both those with diet restrictions and those without—if restaurants have a responsibility to inform customers about their food’s content, including allergen and nutritional information. Women are more inclined than men to think that restaurants have a responsibility to provide this information. Fully 80% of women, compared to 66% of men, agree that restaurants should make such information available. Technomic research has consistently shown that women tend to be more health-conscious than men, so the difference is not surprising.
Technomic also examined the survey data through the filter of whether or not the respondent or a member of their household is on a restrictive diet and found no significant differences.
All 500 survey respondents were asked whether they would be more inclined to visit a restaurant that disclosed its food’s nutritional content and allergen information. A majority of respondents (60%) say they would. Women showed a greater preference to visit restaurants that post nutrition and allergen information, with 67% of women agreeing that they would be more inclined to visit a restaurant that posted such information, compared to 54% of men.
Operators Aim to Accommodate
Consumers say they would be more inclined to visit a restaurant that makes such information readily available, lending support to the notion that restaurant operators that make the disclosure of nutrition and allergen information a priority will be rewarded with increased restaurant patronage.
Most restaurant operators now have their own protocol for serving customers with food allergies or warning them about potential risk. It’s common to glance at a chain restaurant’s menu and see a message asking customers to tell their server or ask for a manager if they have special dietary needs.
And a growing number of restaurants are adding specific descriptors to menu items that accommodate controlled diets. The following chart shows a year-over-year incidence comparison of the leading restrictive-diet menu terms. In cases in which more than one MenuMonitor term is used for the same topic (such as “lowfat” and “fat-free”), each term was included in the tally.
Fat: While lowfat/fat-free items have the highest incidence, the number of menu items with “lowfat” descriptors grew by 15% between 2010 and 2011 (there were 323 such items on offer during the first half of this year), and incidence of items described as “fat-free” dipped by 16% between the two time periods (there were 297 fat-free menu items in 2011, down from 353 the previous year).
Fat has an intrinsic association with rich taste in the minds of many consumers. Consumers might see the term “fat-free” and automatically assume that food without any fat doesn’t taste as good as the alternatives. It’s also possible that some consumers are skeptical about fat-free menu offerings, thinking that for an item to be free of fat, there must be some sort of “fake” replacement ingredient.
Gluten: Over the past few years, the industry has been buzzing over the term “gluten,” and awareness of the topic seems to be increasing, if a look at the leading restaurant menus is any indication. At top chains, emerging concepts and independent restaurants, the total number of gluten-free menu items jumped from 175 in the first half of 2010 to 282 during the same period in 2011, an increase of 61.1%.
The number of concepts spotlighting gluten-free or low-gluten items increased as well, jumping 90% from 20 to 38 between the periods, further strengthening the notion that gluten is increasingly being viewed by restaurant operators as an attention-worthy topic.
Some operators are now calling out on their menus items that have always been naturally gluten-free, such as rice-based foods or grilled meats. Others are using their menus to alert diners that certain items can be prepared gluten-free at customer request. It is worth noting that for the two time periods examined in this report (January–June 2010 and January–June 2011), not a single menu item was billed as “low gluten.” There are inherent difficulties that come with offering a dish that is low in gluten and defending the dish if questions arise.
Sugar: Sugar is being addressed more on menus today than it was last year. The number of menu items including the descriptors “no sugar” or “low sugar” increased between the first half of 2010 and the first half of 2011.
Offerings identified as “no sugar” or “sugar-free” in the menu description increased by 63%, to 98 mentions from 60 mentions. Virtually all instances of menu items described as having no sugar refer to either a dessert item or a beverage. Bakers Square, for instance, added a line of no-sugar-added pies in the first half of 2011, and Golden Corral augmented its dessert lineup with items such as No Sugar Added Blueberry Pie and No Sugar Added Chocolate Pudding.
Meanwhile, menu offerings described as being low in sugar increased by 87%—although it bears mentioning that at 28 total mentions, low-sugar items still have much lower menu representation than no-sugar items. In early 2011, Fire Mountain rolled out 10 reduced-sugar desserts, including chocolate cream pie, apple pie, chocolate pudding and strawberry pie.
It’s worth noting that menu references to diabetes show very low incidence and no growth (just two total menu mentions). Operators may find it safer and easier to inform their diabetic customers about components of their menu items by providing a nutritional guide, wherein customers can see a specific menu item’s total grams of sugar, carbohydrates, etc., versus making a claim about a disease. Diet recommendations for diabetics have changed over the years, and operators might assume that their diabetic patrons are relying on their own reference materials to make informed decisions while dining out.
Menu items with descriptions that reference gluten, sugar and other health-related topics are expanding on restaurant menus as more operators recognize that an increasing number of Americans require controlled diets. A key starting point is to try to accommodate consumers with health-related conditions by being transparent about menu ingredients and making it easy to see which items include certain food allergens or are lower in fat, sugar and other ingredients.
Darren Tristano is Executive Vice President of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.