Has the pizza segment responded to demand for healthier options?

When restaurant trend predictions for 2013 began trickling in toward the end of last year, "healthier options" topped many lists.

Technomic forecasted a big year for vegetables, for example, while children's nutrition landed atop the National Restaurant Association's forecast for the second year in a row.

The trend is in direct response to consumer demand for such options, which is on the upswing. GrubHub has tracked "healthy takeout orders" for the past few years and has found that such requests are up more than 50 percent since January 2011. They were up 10 percent nationwide in January 2013 compared to the same period last year.

Health-halo descriptors

In part as a response to this trend, emerging menu trends in the pizza segment include a bigger focus on chicken and seafood as toppings, according to Darren Tristano, EVP at Technomic. Additionally, "fresh toppings" requests are up 6 percent since 2010 and consumers are also seeking out more premium ingredients than they were in recent years.

"They want more health-halo descriptors such as all-natural, locally-sourced, healthier components like whole wheat crusts, organic, artisan, gluten-free," Tristano said.

However, although healthier options have popped up here and there on pizza menus, it's unlikely they'll become the rule rather than the exception. While more consumers now want healthier options, that doesn't mean they'll always choose those options when dining out.

"Ultimately what operators need to keep in mind is consumers indulge when they go out to eat — they can eat healthy at home. But they want to have healthful options when they are out because it gives them more control over their decisions," Tristano added.

Chains offering such options

Many pizza chains seem to be working hard to provide consumers with such a choice. For example, Sbarro introduced a 270-calorie "Skinny Slice" in January. The trademarked Skinny Slice features roasted red and green bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions, and is topped with mozzarella and pecorino Romano cheeses.

"We created the Skinny Slice as a delicious menu option for our guests looking for a great meal or snack that is both low in calories and satisfies that fix for pizza done the Sbarro way," said Jim Greco, CEO of Sbarro.

Beginning April 1, zpizza will offer its newest pizza, with roasted tomato and pesto, featuring charred sweet tomatoes, pesto sauce and fresh mozzarella topped with fresh basil. It includes 100-percent organic wheat flour and is fire-baked until crisp. Founder Sid Fanarof called this new pizza a healthy alternative to traditional pizzas recipes.

Also starting April 1, LaRosa's Pizzeria will offer a healthier menu for its guests. The new "B Good 2 U" menu includes chicken, turkey and tuna hoagies, all served on a multigrain wheat bun. The menu features items under 475 calories.

California Pizza Kitchen has introduced The Diet Pepsi Mixology program, which offers original flavors in lower-calorie combinations. Guests now have the opportunity to choose from three beverage combinations: Berry Lean, a combination of SoBe Lean, fresh blueberries, passion fruit, blood orange and pomegranate mélange; Blueberry Lime, a combination of blueberries, lime and Diet Pepsi; and the Dark and Red, which combines pomegranates, blood oranges and Diet Pepsi.

California Pizza Kitchen has also launched two new seasonal menu items with ingredients such as Brussels sprouts and roasted beets.

Papa Murphy's has also added three pizzas to its Primo Line, with toppings such as fennel sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula.

And, Pizza Ranch recently brought back its sweet chili pizza and Cran-Tastic Salad. The sweet chili pizza is made with roasted chicken, onions, green pepper, pineapple, sweet chili sauce and cheese. The Cran-Tastic Salad contains dried cranberries, candied pecans, chopped lettuce, feta cheese, red onion slices and raspberry walnut vinaigrette.

Good for business

In addition to hitting a trend, providing "healthier" options or items with "health halo" descriptors seems to be good for business, according to a new study by the Hudson Institute. Its report, "Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business," analyzed the largest limited-service chains and found those that have been increasing the amount of lower-calorie options within the past five years have had better sales growth, larger increases in traffic and stronger gains in total food and beverage servings.

"Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won't expand their waist lines, and the chains that recognize this are doing better than those that don't," said Hank Cardello, lead author of the report, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.

In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains evaluated from 2006 through 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages outperformed those that were not lower-calorie. In addition, chains that increased their servings of lower-calorie items saw a 5.5-percent increase in same-store sales, compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings; and a 10.9-percent growth in customer traffic, compared with a 14.7 percent decline.

Read more about health and nutrition.

On the cover: One of California Pizza Kitchen's new pizzas features Brussels sprouts as a topping.

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