More than half of U.S. chain restaurants plan to increase their light- or low-calorie menu items this year, with 52 percent adding offerings to their gluten-free menu, according to a national menu price survey by restaurant supply-chain co-op SpenDifference.
The survey also found that 37 percent of chain restaurants intend to serve more locally sourced menu items and that the use of organics will increase by 13 percent, according to a news release.
The findings are included in SpenDifference's third menu price survey, which for the first time asked chain-restaurant operators about their plans to offer more healthful menu options.
"There's a growing demand for low-calorie and gluten-free menu items that will be with us for a long time," said SpenDifference president and CEO Maryanne Rose. "Operators recognize that a growing number of customers have health-related dietary restrictions, and they are revamping their menus to include choices for them, as well as for those who simply want more healthful choices."
Currently, 9 percent of restaurants surveyed serve organic products, 55 percent have gluten-free menu items, 36 percent source products locally and 53 percent offer diners light- or low-calorie options. Of restaurants not offering these products, 7 percent say they plan to introduce them on their menus this year.
Eleven percent of limited-service chains say they plan to reduce their organic offerings this year, which Rose said may suggest a supply chain issue.
"Better-for-you items are niche products, and movement on these is not as high as mainstay menu offerings," she said. "Low-volume movement adds to freight costs, and distributors can have a hard time stocking the items."
The best strategy for smaller chains is to work with their distributors to determine who they are buying from so they can reduce freight costs by adding specialty items to the truck, and to see what products the distributors already have in stock, Rose said. Another option is to look at a local source to offset freight costs.
However, offering light- or low-calorie meals doesn't always require specialty products like gluten-free or organic items. Using smaller portions for entrees, reducing the amount of sugar in recipes and adding fresh vegetables and fruits to menu items can avoid supply chain issues, Rose said.
Although consumer demand for gluten-free offerings is driving the cost of wheat and most grain products higher, leading to higher menu prices, consumers are willing to pay a premium for meals that meet their dietary needs, the release said.