Consumers have been waiting for calorie information in US foodservice menus for five years. And due to recent extensions, they will have to wait a little longer. Changes were teased back in 2010 with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which vowed that restaurants with 20 or more locations would be required to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. The final date for implementation was almost sure to go into effect several times, including this year. However, the compliance deadline has been pushed back again to Dec. 1, 2016.

This comes as a relief to many in the restaurant business, giving them more time to figure out the sordid details. However, many have started posting calorie counts, including restaurants in states that have already mandated menu labeling rules.

The delay is a result of continued operator concerns about how the rules would apply to them. The FDA agreed that more time was necessary and plans to post a guidance document this month to answer some of the industry’s questions. For example, Domino’s posed the following question: “How in the world do you post pizza calories when there are 34 million different ways you can make a pizza?”

The whole issue begs an answer to how much the calorie-labeling will affect consumer choices. Mintel data shows that posted nutritional information is of some importance to 68% of consumers when deciding which restaurant to visit. Assigning numbers to the low-calorie desire, 38% believe that a healthy meal falls between 400-600 calories.

Those numbers have already provided the marching orders for some operators as they develop new calorie-focused menus.

  • Firehouse Subs has a “Hearty & Flavorful Under 500 Calories” menu.
  • Applebee’s offers a “Healthy Menu—Have it All” with items under 600 calories.
  • El Pollo Loco added an “All Day Menu – 5 Under 500 Calories” section.
  • Luby’s has a “Livin’ Smart” menu with all items 600 calories or less.
  • Olive Garden has a “Lighter Italian Fare” lunch menu with items under 575 calories.

Looking beyond low-calorie menus, beverages are next in line to take on the better-for-you (BFY) challenge. According to Mintel’s On-premise Alcohol Trends US 2015 report, the belief that alcohol has too many calories prevents 15% of consumers from ordering it at a restaurant. And that’s just the alcohol menu. Consider the rise of addictive indulgent beverages like blended coffees, milkshakes and crafted sodas. Taking the lead on this issue, Red Robin added a “Beverage Menu Under 10 Calories” section to the non-alcoholic beverages menu. So far it includes peach or raspberry iced tea and peach or raspberry lemonade. This is in addition to its three-item Skinny Cocktails that call on lemonade, tea and fresh lime to keep them below 150 calories.

For the consumers who aren’t convinced they can eat out and maintain their diet, they may choose grocery store prepared foods, which itself is coming under the calorie-labeling regulations. Mintel data shows that consumers are a little more optimistic about the nutrition prospects of grocery store prepared foods. When asked about their reasons for purchasing prepared foods at retail, 19% of consumers said they do it because that food is healthier, and 11% do it because they are concerned about their weight.

Healthy inspires new restaurant concepts

Some operators are leveraging consumer desire for healthy eating by developing entire concepts around it. Think of now-famous LYFE Kitchen where nothing on the menu has more than 600 calories. That may be a little more realistic than Darden’s Seasons 52, which was founded in 2003 touting that nothing would be over 475 calories. That modus operandi has since gone a tad by the wayside, and today you can find Southern-Style Shrimp & Grits coming in at 720 calories. But overall, with its fresh, seasonal theme, most items are well positioned as BFY.

It’s unmistakable that health has legs with US foodservice consumers. Watch for fast-casual restaurants, liek PHresh Kitchen, to start popping up across the US. The PH in PHresh refers to alkalinity with its BFY property.  It’s the brainchild of Tim Murphy, who has spent more than 30 years in the restaurant industry working for the likes of Walt Disney World and the former parent company of Denny’s, Hardees, El Pollo Loco and more. All PHresh menu items range from 300-600 calories, are low-sodium and were developed with the help of dieticians.

As there is more time before menu calorie labeling is enforced, expect to see the foodservice industry evolve to meet consumer demand for healthy, including new low-calorie concepts.

Paul Pendola is a Foodservice Industry Analyst and the manager of Menu Insights at Mintel. He has over thirty years of foodservice operations, business and client development and research experience.

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