Today’s top four food trends

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Experimentation with more unique flavors and the use of healthful, sustainably sourced ingredients are trending among American diners today, according to menu research firm Datassential.

The firm used its database of menu items from more than 4,800 restaurant chains and independent establishments to find the four major food trends happening now, half way through 2012.

“Safe flavor choices don't hold as much weight as they once did,” Datassential said in its report. “Instead, operators are subbing them out for an adoption of sophisticated and unique ingredients, fun experimentation with bold, less-familiar flavors within ethnic cuisines, and a focus on health and whole foods.”

The four most prevalent trends from Datassential newest report:

No. 1: Specialty ingredients

Datassential said customers want “more bang for their bucks in these tough economic times,” and chefs have responded by including high-quality, unique ingredients into dishes. The choice of proteins in 2012 really exemplified this trend, Datassential noted.

Pork belly is showing up on 39 percent more menus than a year ago, steak tartare is on 32 percent more menus and wild salmon is being mentioned 25 percent more often.

This trend has spread to the quick-service level, too, with Arby’s continuing to promote the premium medium-rare prime rib that it introduced in early 2011, and McDonald’s expanding is line of Angus burgers with the current test of a “Clubhouse Angus Burger” in San Diego.

Specialty breads are also on the rise. Casual-dining burger specialist Red Robin rolled out pretzel bread for a burger during Oktoberfest last year. It also regularly offers jalapeño cornmeal buns, ciabatta, marbled rye, baguettes, sourdough and Texas toast.

Fast-casual chain Au Bon Pain combined high-end protein with specialty bread in June with its lobster salad BLT. Available as a limited time offering for the summer, the sandwich is served on an eggless brioche, which the bakery café’s customers preferred over brioche that contains eggs.

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