CHICAGO — US foodservice purveyors have tried to maintain sales and attract customers in recent years by promoting value. However, healthy dishes with fresh vegetables, fruits and other nutritious ingredients have been missing from value meals, according to Mintel Foodservice research.

On the other hand, 41 percent of restaurant diners think eating healthier at their favorite restaurants is more expensive than not eating healthier. Fourteen percent search for the least expensive items on the menu when deciding what to order.

“This kind of price sensitivity gives rise to the concern that, as people cut spending, they are also likely to cut back on healthy food options,” said Eric Giandelone, director of Mintel Foodservice. “The perception that healthy foods are also higher priced is a challenge for restaurant operators, who are under their own pressure to add healthier menu items, not only from consumers but also the government.”

Restaurant operators have much freedom to develop healthier menu options. Healthy restaurant fare is expected to be fresher than average meals. Yet, less than half of restaurant patrons say that healthy meals rate higher than average meals in flavor, satiation, appearance and taste. Mintel respondents believe 510 calories is the average calorie count a healthy meal should contain. The disconnect between healthy and hearty is the source of the problem, Giandelone insists.

“People believe they will be sacrificing flavor and the expectation of a satisfying meal,” he added. “Since the idea of freshness is so closely tied with good health, restaurant operators can use fresh ingredients as a signal of high quality and high taste, while an emphasis on calories still allows for a focus on satiety and flavor.”

Regarding healthy dining, 81 percent of customers are looking for tools to make their healthy decisions easier. Forty-eight percent of respondents choose dishes that utilize healthy ingredients, like lean protein and vegetables. Menu transparency is the next most widely used tool, with 41 percent of restaurant-goers using menu calorie counts to help with their selection. Meanwhile, 29 percent of people simply control portion size by ordering smaller portions or taking home part of their meal.

Mintel is a leading global supplier of consumer, product and media intelligence.