Menus friendlier to diners on restricted diets


Restaurant menu items are increasingly being described as gluten- or cholesterol-free, or low in fat or sugar, catering to consumers who say they are on restricted diets, according to new research by Technomic Inc. released Thursday.

Whether due to choice or necessity, a growing number of consumers say they have dietary restrictions and are asking for more transparency on restaurant menus. Restaurant operators are increasingly accommodating that demand.

Some health-related menu descriptors are more popular than others, Technomic’s “Market Intelligence Report: Restrictive Diets” found.

References to gluten, for example, jumped 61 percent on restaurant menus, with the number of mentions growing from 175 to 282 from 2010 to 2011, the report found. Casual-dining concepts were most likely to point out menu items for diners on gluten-free diets.

Mary Chapman, Technomic’s director of product innovation, said gluten-free dining appears to be growing in popularity, even among those who don’t describe themselves as gluten-intolerant.

Of about 250 survey respondents who said they had dietary restrictions or lived with someone who did, only 4 percent identified gluten intolerance as their restriction. Still, about 25 percent said they believed gluten-free foods are better for you.

“There seems to be evidence that it’s trendy,” Chapman said.

Menu mentions of cholesterol also grew year-over-year, with items described as cholesterol-free outpacing those described as simply low in cholesterol, the report found.

In the first half of 2011, the number of menu items described as cholesterol-free grew by 83 percent over the same period in 2010, from 41 to 75, mostly among midscale and fine-dining restaurants.

However, mentions of fat in menu descriptions varied. The number of menu items described as low fat grew 15 percent to 323 in 2011 over the prior year. However, the number of items described as fat-free declined by 16 percent during the same period.