Today's Top Four Food Trends

Applebee's Fiesta Chicken Chopped SaladExperimentation 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.

Oktoberfest burger and lobster BLT

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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No. 2: New ethnic flavors

"'Ethnic' doesn't just mean teriyaki chicken for Japanese or pad thai for Thai — instead, operators are moving past such traditional flavors and experimenting with new ingredients and dishes, drawing inspiration from Asian, Latin and Mediterranean cuisines primarily," Datassential reported.

That includes Thai sweet chile sauce, now so widespread that McDonald's has such a sauce, tested during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, available nationwide today.


Banh mi sandwich and Cry Baby Burger with sriracha

Red Robin also serves Thai chile sauce with its lightly breaded mushroom appetizer, and it also has a Sriracha dry seasoning on its spicy new burger, The Cry Baby.

The Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich is also on a virtual roll, available at many independent restaurants as well as at 18-unit flex-casual chain Mama Fu's. Based in Austin, Texas, the chain won an Nation's Restaurant News MenuMasters award earlier this year for its sandwich.

Chipotle subsidiary Shophouse also opened last year with a bánh mì offering, and Wendy's is currently testing a chicken flatbread version of the sandwich.


Southeast meets West 
Bánh mì boom
Kimchi gains popularity in the U.S

From Latin America, the herb vinaigrette chimichurri is appearing on dishes ranging from Rubio's new salmon taco, to Applebee's Fiesta Chicken Chopped Salad.

From the Mediterranean, the Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki is showing up on menus ranging from The Cheesecake Factory, where it appears on its Santorini Farro Salad, to T.G.I. Friday's which last year offered "Tapa-tizer Skewers, including one with lemon-garlic sauce and Tzatziki, available with black Angus sirloin or chicken."

Next: Healthful offerings
Previous: Specialty ingredients

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No. 3: Healthful offerings

Healthful offerings are getting more emphasis on menus — but in ways that help consumers feel like they're not depriving themselves, according to Datassential.

Terms like "all-natural" and "locally sourced" are spreading faster than "low-fat," and a variety of whole grains are making their presence felt.

Seasons 52 Summer Vegetarian Tasting

Quinoa, for example, appears in the Southwest Scramble at the new Starbucks subsidiary Evolution Fresh. Quinoa's also served on Seasons 52's menu, in its Summer Vegetarian Tasting, although it's called "grains of life," instead.

Freshii also offers quinoa bowls as part its offerings. And Red Mango has said it's using only all-natural ingredients in its new "frozen coffee chillers."

RELATED: Back in style

Next: New vegetables
Previous: New ethnic flavors

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No. 4: New vegetables

Kale Caesar SaladAs part of the better-for-you trend, restaurants are branching out with vegetables they hadn't used before, Datassential found, noting that kale, Brussels sprouts and celery root in particular are trending.

Kale in particular is popping. Quite apart from a kale Caesar trend that swept independent restaurants last summer, it's appearing in salads at chains such as Burger Lounge.

Mustard greens, another trendy vegetable, was the centerpiece of the vegetarian dumplings at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which has two brick-and-mortar locations and four food trucks in New York City, and roasted beets are featured at six-unit True Food Kitchen in dishes such as roasted beet and mozzarella agrodolce with pistachio, arugula and extra virgin olive oil.

Previous: Healthful offerings

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