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CHICAGO -- Despite increased buzz about healthy dining and the possibility of nationwide restaurant nutrition labeling, new research released this week by Mintel Menu Insights suggests healthy menu items still face a tough battle for acceptance.
Mintel surveyed American diners and found only one in five (20 percent) rank food health as an important factor when ordering dinner. Far more essential are taste and hunger satisfaction, selected by 77 percent and 44 percent of respondents, respectively. And although more than three-quarters of adults claim they'd like to see healthier items on menus, barely half (51 percent) said they usually order them, the research revealed.
"There's definitely a dichotomy between what people say they want and what they actually do when it comes to healthy restaurant eating," stated Maria Caranfa, a registered dietician and director of Mintel Menu Insights. "More than eight in 10 adults told us it's very or somewhat important to them to eat healthy, but when it comes to dining out, most people are really looking for taste, texture and experience. So healthy menu items need to perfect the balance between nutrition and flavor."
Price remains a deterrent to healthy restaurant fare, especially as the economy weighs down people's finances. More than half of Mintel's survey respondents (54 percent) said eating healthy at restaurants is more expensive. Caranfa agreed "when it comes to healthy menu items, the prices are often higher and less promoted."
Additionally, even though restaurants are creating more nutritious food and drink, "healthy" items are still dwarfed by regular, and even anti-health, menu items. Mintel Menu Insights found during the first quarter of 2009, only 5 percent of new items carried a nutritional claim, while nearly one in five new food items was fried.
Still, pressure exists for restaurants to add more wholesome options. The government is trying to increase nutrition labeling on menus, and Mintel's survey showed more than three-quarters of diners want more menu transparency on food health.
"Restaurants need to make 'healthy' food appeal on flavor, freshness and satiety benefits, not just on calorie and fat information," Caranfa stated. "People seek fresh ingredients and more vegetables in healthy food, both of which can be promoted in a positive way. Healthy dining should be as satisfying as ordering from the regular menu."
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