'Protein paradigm' on food service menus

by Monica Watrous
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Noodles & Co. launched Buff Bowls which feature spinach instead of pasta and proteins such as steak, chicken and pork.
Noodles & Co. launched Buff Bowls which feature spinach instead of pasta and proteins such as steak, chicken and pork.

ROCKVILLE, Md. – Protein is flexing its muscle on menus as more restaurants jump on the opportunity to recast items in a “protein paradigm,” said Packaged Facts, a Rockville-based market research firm. Bucking the Meatless Mondays trend is a rise in restaurant customers seeking dishes high in protein, which is associated with satiety and weight management. Sixty-two per ent of consumers say they aim to eat a protein-rich diet, Packaged Facts said.

From Panera Bread to Noodles & Co., fast-casual restaurants typically associated with carb-rich fare like bagels and pasta have pumped up protein’s presence on the menu with power bowls featuring vegetables with lean meats or legumes. This year Noodles & Co. unveiled its Buff Bowls, which substitute spinach for the fast-casual chain’s typical pasta and double the vegetables. Varieties include Japanese Pan with marinated steak, Tuscan Fresca with grilled chicken breast, Bangkok Curry with organic tofu, and Pesto with pork.

Adding to the interest in protein is the popularity of the Paleo Diet, with its focus on nuts, eggs, grass-fed beef and fish and an avoidance of dairy, grains and processed foods.

“More and more restaurant concepts are making it easier for those following the Paleo Diet to enjoy meals that fit their regimen,” Packaged Facts said. “Providing transparency, including preparation methods and nutrition, and safeguarding culinary practices for the integrity of diets are of key importance for these types of restaurateurs. When done right, both menus and concepts alike can be tailored to diets that focus on protein and present protein-rich foods in new and innovative ways.”

To appeal to the demand, restaurant chains should emphasize the protein content of existing menu items and merchandise such products as Greek yogurt, kefir and “power salads or packs” in a dedicated space near the register or entryway so customers may quickly and easily locate high-protein options, Packaged Facts said.

“Creativity is key with ‘power’ salads, but start with the basics: include lean meats, ancient grains, such as quinoa, yogurt and hummus,” Packaged Facts said. “Develop power snack packs with a choice of almonds (and without, being mindful to those with allergies), yogurt cheese, dippable lean meats, salumi, nut butters, quinoa, amaranth and pea-protein snack squares.”

Casual dining and fine-dining chains may add special menu sections and label protein-rich foods on menus. Restaurant operators also may leverage technology, including tablet- and kiosk-based ordering, to guide diners to high-protein and lower-calorie options on menus.

“Additionally, the appetizer section of the menu is ripe for protein-rich small plates focused on lean meats and/or high-protein ancient grains,” Packaged Facts said. “Chicken skewers, combined with legumes or grains, like quinoa or freekeh, can be robust in protein, while at the same time appealing to many diets that avoid dairy or starches.”

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