CONSUMERS may be starting to consider the health and nutrition of their meals more than thought, according to new research by the Hudson Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The research found that restaurants that serve lower-calorie foods and beverages experience better business performance than restaurants that serve more "traditional" menu offerings, according to the Hudson report on the study, which is thought to be the first-ever study to determine the financial impact of lower-calorie foods and beverages in the restaurant sector.
The research was conducted over a five-year period from 2006 to 2011, which included the 2008-09 recession, and analyzed sales at 21 restaurant systems, including both casual and quick-service chains that represent 49% of the market of the top 100 chains.
The researchers categorized "lower-calorie" items as entrees and sandwiches with 500 calories or fewer, appetizers/side dishes/desserts with 150 calories or fewer and beverages with 50 calories or fewer. Items that did not meet these parameters were considered "traditional."
The study found that, over the time period, lower-calorie foods and beverages were "the growth engine" for the restaurants, with lower-calorie items outperforming traditional items at 17 of the 21 restaurant companies.
Chains that increased offerings of lower-calorie items generated:
* A 10.9% increase in customer traffic, compared with a 14.7% decline at the other chains offering fewer lower-calorie items;
* A 5.5% increase in same-store sales, compared with a 5.5% decrease in same-store sales at the other chains, and
* An 8.9% increase in total food and beverage servings, compared with a 16.3% decrease at the other chains.
Furthermore, lower-calorie servings of foods and beverages increased as a percentage of the total servings across all 21 chains. Over the five years, chains collectively increased servings of lower-calorie items by 472 million, while servings of traditional items decreased 1.3 billion.
Consumers "are hungry" for restaurant meals that are healthful in terms of calories, and restaurants that recognize this are performing better than those that don't, said Hank Cardello, lead author of the report and a senior fellow at Hudson.
The research shows that restaurants that offer lower-calorie entrees and other foods and beverages can meet both their own profit interests and their customers' interests in healthier meals, said Dr. James Marks, senior vice president and director of the health group at Robert Wood Johnson.
The research used companies' annual reports and data from market research firms, and the findings are available in the report "Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business."
The research was conducted by Hudson and funded by Robert Wood Johnson.
Hudson said the study followed up 2011 research, also led by Cardello, that examined the business impact of "better-for-you" packaged foods and beverages that found similar results.
The "bottom line," Cardello said, is that offering more better-for-you and lower-calorie foods and beverages "is good business" for packaged goods and restaurant companies.
Hudson, based in Washington, D.C., is a non-partisan policy research organization. It's "Obesity Solutions Initiative" (www.obesity-solutions.org) seeks to create market-oriented, practical solutions to the global issue of excess weight and obesity.
Robert Wood Johnson focuses on human well-being issues.
Getting the facts
The fact that better-for-you, lower-calorie packaged foods and beverages are becoming "good business" may suggest that consumers are finally starting to pay more attention to nutrition facts (nutrition information) labels, which have been in use for nearly 20 years, the Food & Drug Administration noted in a recent statement.
The Nutrition Labeling & Education Act of 1990 required the labels on all packaged foods, effective since May 1994. FDA said the labels can help people track nutrient availability in foods, compare nutrients in one food to another and make dietary choices.
Health professionals said this is good news as consumers historically have paid little attention to calorie and nutrition information at restaurants and on food packages (Feedstuffs, April 4, 2010).
In particular, FDA said labels can help people make heart-healthy choices.
High blood pressure affects one of every three adults in the U.S., or 75 million people, and slightly elevated blood pressure affects another 78 million people, FDA said, explaining that high blood pressure forces the heart to work harder and can lead to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S.
Consuming excessive cholesterol, sodium and total fat, especially saturated and trans fats, can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, FDA said, and by heeding the "percent daily value" (%DV) of these nutrients on the nutrition facts label, one can determine not only if a food is high in these nutrients but how much of each the product contains.
As a general guide, FDA said a %DV of 5% or less is considered low, and 20% or more is considered high.
To reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, FDA emphasized that a person should never consume more than 100% of the daily value for cholesterol, sodium or total fat each day.
FDA noted that the daily value for cholesterol is 300 mg, the daily value for total fat is 64 g and the daily maximum for sodium is 2,400 mg, although that drops to 1,500 mg for people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease, for African-Americans and for people who are 51 years of age and older.
Additional information on daily values and using nutrition facts labels is available at www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm315393.htm and also at www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm199058.htm.
Consumers also are showing an increasing interest in high-protein foods and beverages, according to market trends researcher Mintel in Chicago, Ill.
Protein "awareness" is, in fact, higher in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world because Americans are seeking protein to aid in satiety and weight management and to build and recover muscle, Mintel analyst Nirvana Chapman said.
Indeed, she said new food and beverage products making a high-protein claim in the U.S. last year accounted for 19% of such new product introductions worldwide, followed by 9% in India and 7% in the U.K.
Foods making high-protein claims "span an array" of categories well beyond naturally protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry and fish, Chapman said. Actually, the category is dominated by snacks, meal replacement and other fortified drinks and yogurts, she said.
High-protein formulations are especially important for people seeking satiety, i.e., a feeling of fullness, and for sports beverages due to protein's attributes for enhancing muscle repair and growth after exercise, Chapman said.