Consumers’ View of Healthy Breakfasts

There is no standard definition for a healthy breakfast, as the words conjure up different things for different people. American consumers define healthy foods, using a wide variety of personal parameters, showing that healthy is relative. For some, the food must be high in fiber, meatless, organic or gluten-free. Others use food as a pharmacy, seeking items rich in protein, iron or calcium. Locavores view foods grown nearby as being healthier. Still others demand only non-GMO, antibiotic-free or sustainably-raised foods on their plates.

Kelly Weikel, Technomic’s director of consumer insights, says consumers are increasingly “choosing their own balanced, personal approach to health and wellness that makes them feel good emotionally and physically.” High-quality protein of the type found in eggs is critical for boosting brain function and supporting muscular health, enabling a successful do-it-yourself regimen.

This brings up a new wrinkle in the definition of healthy foods across the dayparts: where healthy was once based on nutrition alone ‒ low-fat, low-calorie ‒ it now includes where an item is produced, as well as its impact on the ecosystem. It began with the concept of organic and has now expanded to issues of ingredient transparency and interaction with the environment. Mintel says menu descriptors concerning sourcing rose 11 percent between 2012 and 2015. The shift was brought about by Millennials asking tough questions, ultimately changing many consumers’ approach to food.

Descriptors suggesting farm-to-table attributes like fresh eggs, natural maple syrup, real butter and locally grown produce make the biggest impact on menus according to the Hartman Group, with 55 percent of consumers choosing “fresh” as being the most important. On a related point, Nielsen found over 60 percent of Americans say the absence of artificial colors or flavors is important to their grocery purchase decisions.

The following research results showcase other changes in Americans’ relationship with their food:

  • Mintel reports consumers are more mindful about what they eat at breakfast and are looking to add high-quality proteins like eggs, lean meats and poultry.
  • A 2015 Technomic survey shows 64 percent of respondents would be more likely to order a breakfast item that is high in protein. With six grams of protein per egg, hot breakfast dishes including them significantly increase a meal’s protein quotient.
  • NPD research says one quarter of adults look for protein on nutrition labels, up 39 percent between 2006 and 2013.
  • The Hartman Group says consumers’ desire for ‒
    • “The shortest list of ingredients” rose 20 percent in the past five years when shopping for groceries, as the shorter the list, the purer and simpler the item.
    • “Added vitamins and minerals” dropped by 12 percent, likely due to a need for more natural, simpler items.
  • Technomic found ‒
    • 62 percent of consumers are more likely to purchase foods and beverages that are locally sourced.
    • 86 percent of consumers want more transparency from restaurants about ingredients in their food (the foodservice version of clean labeling)

The current uptick of interest in veggie-focused cuisine can be attributed to the desire for fresh foods and clean labels, as well as the spread of global food culture in the U.S. Using meat as center of the plate is really only common in North America and Western Europe. As we become accustomed to other cultures’ cuisines, meals that rely on eggs and vegetable protein quietly step into our routine.

Considering the attitudes listed above, it becomes more apparent that the egg, a fresh, natural, nutrient rich, clean labeled and environmentally-friendly protein is the perfect partner to combine with other healthy ingredients throughout the day. Fresh and natural cheeses, veggies, herbs and poultry ‒ all are important to today’s consumers and all can be combined in endless combinations with eggs in scrambles, burritos, omelets, Benedicts, frittatas, sandwiches and platters.

Millennials have now surpassed the number of Baby Boomers and become the largest American demographic group. A 2015 Time magazine survey of Millennial parents found 30 percent were very/extremely concerned about other parents judging the food their children eat. Locavorism is supported by 52 percent, and 41 percent buy organic whenever they can. These are the people raising the next generation of consumers, which increases by 9,000 babies on a daily basis. Both the parents and their children will expect foods that are antibiotic- and hormone-free, more veggie-heavy than today and with cleaner labels. Smart operators and manufacturers will build menus and grocery items in accordance with the expectations of that next generation. They could appropriately be called table stakes for healthy business.

Healthy Consumer Trends: Operator/Manufacturer Response

The world was a simpler place in the 1980s and 1990s. When asked for healthier foods, foodservice operators and food manufacturers accommodated consumers by eliminating fat and sodium, which also removed most of the flavor. Lackluster sales were taken as proof that consumers didn’t really want healthy items. On the contrary, what they really didn’t want was bland food.

After years of false starts, both operators and food manufacturers have begun to depend on culinary science to upscale and make healthier even quick serve menu items and frozen meals. Spices, herbs and citrus are now added to rev flavors. Artificial additives have been eliminated, and sustainably-produced items are becoming more common. Recognizing that fresh and clean are not fads but growing trends, the industry is moving toward simpler foods, cleaner labels and fresh rather than processed. Consumers equate fresh with healthy, so progressive menus emphasize seasonal produce, house-made ingredients and made-to-order signature items.

This brings us to a next evolutionary step. Although the industry formerly merely deleted things like fat, it is now replacing suspect ingredients with more natural ones. This leads to simpler, less complicated ingredient lists. “Consumers have seen recall after recall, so fewer ingredients, particularly artificial ones, are seen as fewer elements to break down in the food chain,” notes William Roberts, Mintel senior analyst, food and drink.

Companies, including General Mills and Kraft, are eliminating artificial colors and flavors. Sweet Earth Natural Foods describes many of its frozen breakfast products as using no GMO, but using all natural protein, ancient grains and/or fresh vegetables. Good Food Made Simple’s breakfast items are variously promised to be all natural, made with turkey raised without antibiotics and having no artificial ingredients, trans fat or added nitrite/nitrate. Chains like Panera, Chipotle and Subway are renovating iconic products and creating new ones more in tune with consumer sentiments. To that end, McDonald’s is currently testing a healthy breakfast bowl in Southern California that combines egg whites, turkey sausage, and fresh spinach and kale.

This new thinking helped to popularize items like the breakfast bowl. Popping up on menus throughout the industry, bowls incorporate a wealth of flavors, nutrition and textures, all in one multifaceted dish. The components are normally fresh items like just-cracked eggs, fresh produce, whole grains and fresh poultry. Ingredients retain their identity, making the bowl a treasure trove of flavors, the customization of which is especially attractive to Millennial diners. Described as soft scramble, roasted mushroom, tomato confit, scallion and pecorino, the Scrambler Cruiser is just one in a line of breakfast bowls offered at NYC’s Egg Shop.

Fresh vegetables have been declared a major trend for 2016 by trend watchers Andrew Freeman Co. and Baum+Whiteman. Menued increasingly as center of plate items and add-ins to increase fiber and nutrients, veggies offer many ways to create a healthy morning meal. The Breakfast Bowl at Kale & Clover in Scottsdale incorporates a symphony of flavors and textures with two eggs, brown rice, tomato, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, avocado and house-made pesto. Even kale and Brussels sprouts make appearances in the morning with items like Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Two Fried Eggs and Kale Pesto at the Rose Cafe in Venice, Calif.

And now for another step, maybe even a leap. Drive-thrus have habituated consumers to having easy, fast access to prepared foods, but until recently many of those foods were high in calories, sodium and fat. Breakfast was often the exception to this, offering high-protein, lower-calorie sandwiches that were also often higher in fiber than their lunch and dinner counterparts. But today as we move toward the cleaner-labeled, more natural food we used to eat at home before the convenience of drive-thrus existed, a great opportunity presents itself. Operators are at the perfect point in drive-thru history to use those windows to promote a solution for the overscheduled consumer’s problem: how to get a truly healthy meal during a time-crunched morning. Or at any time they choose. Today’s consumer both needs and wants better nutrition that carries an environmentally-friendly halo. Time constraints dictate that for the perfect consumer solution, it be provided readymade and preferably through the ease of a drive-thru window.

The sweet spot here is the convergence of consumers’ desire for convenience, clean nutrition and social responsibility in the morning, with the operators’ ability and willingness to provide it. Operators who can make it work will have added new patrons to their drive-thru lane. This may be the start of a beautiful relationship between convenience and truly healthy meals.

Healthy Breakfast

East Meets West on Healthy Breakfasts

New York City is home to the most expensive omelet in the world. Norma’s will serve the Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata made with 10 ounces of caviar, one pound of lobster, covered with eggs and served on fried potatoes to anyone willing to pay the $1,000 price. ‘No one beats The Big Apple’ ‒ at least not in culinary excess ‒ is a boast for which the city’s vibrant restaurant culture is rightly famous.

Other NYC breakfasts, not quite so decadent but certainly more often ordered, are indulgent enough to land on anyone’s breakfast treat list:

  • L’Inglese: two fried eggs, house-made heritage pork sausage, thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, roasted tomato, roasted mushrooms and roasted potatoes (Aurora, Brooklyn)
  • Bacon, Egg & Oyster Sandwich: fried oysters, bacon, egg and pickles on a brioche roll (The Penrose, NYC)
  • Oreo Brioche French Toast: Oreo stuffing, Oreo breading, maple syrup and powdered sugar (Queens Comfort, Astoria)
  • Pork Sausage Pie: house-made herbed pork sausage, brioche pudding and two eggs (The District, NYC)
  • Loco Moco: rice, chorizo, avocado and sunny-side up eggs covered in bacon gravy (Concord Hill, Brooklyn)

On the other side of the continent, we find a polar opposite: the light touch of food known as California Cuisine. Distilled from cuisines of its large Asian and Hispanic populations and the impact of year-round outdoor lifestyles, California Cuisine features the many farm-to-table foods grown in the state and collected from the sea. This better-for-you style is typified by skillful use of herbs and spices with fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, poultry and seafood.

Examples of California breakfast cuisine are diverse and aromatic:

  • Charred Avocado Toast: two fried eggs, lemon and grilled scallion-jalapeno marmalade (Rose Café, Venice)
  • Baked Eggs Skillet: baked eggs, stewed white beans, kale, chili oil and feta (Milo & Olive, Santa Monica)
  • Grilled Asparagus: with polenta, winter vegetables and soft egg (A.O.C. Wine Bar, L.A.)
  • 2 Poached Eggs: with wild mushrooms, tomatoes, scallions and goat cheese on mixed greens (Venus, Berkeley)
  • Lentil Ragu: with poached eggs, kale, feta & country bread (Huckleberry Cafe, Santa Monica)

But that’s not the end of the New York vs. California menu story. According to Technomic, California consumers ordered healthy options 41 percent of the time when eating out, not significantly more often than the Northeast consumers’ 37 percent. This small gap remains when drilling down into segments. As for those dining at fast-casual in California, we see a 46 percent order rate, with 41 percent in the Northeast. So perhaps East and West are not so far apart in their eating habits after all.

A scan of menus for better-for-you breakfast items in New York City found the following:

  • Soft Scramble Eggs: chévre, leeks and truffle vinaigrette (Lafayette Grand Café)
  • Winter Hash: black rice, sunny-side up egg, butternut squash, chili Brussels sprouts, ginger and scallion (Dimes)
  • Kale & Egg Sandwich: avocado, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan and vinaigrette (Ellary’s Greens)
  • Roasted Beet Sandwich: with smoked egg and avocado (Little Park)
  • Jamaican Rancheros: eggs over easy, plantains, stew peas and Scotch bonnet pepper (Miss Lilly’s)

Scanning for more indulgent breakfasts in California revealed:

  • Hunt’s Hash: braised brisket, roasted pork shoulder, fennel sausage, bell peppers, potatoes topped with two poached eggs (The Cannery Cafe, Hayward)
  • The Money Maker: lemon rosemary bread pudding and caramel cream sauce topped with a fried egg (C&M Café, L.A.)
  • Breakfast Sandwich: 50% ground chorizo/50% ground bacon patty, cheddar cheese, two sunny-side up eggs, thick-cut bacon and two deep-fried waffles with real maple syrup (Slater’s 50/50, Huntington Beach)
  • Kamil’s Breakfast: elbow macaroni scrambled with eggs, smoked bacon, ham, garlic, chives and cheddar cheese (Blu Jam Café, Woodland Hills)
  • Country Breakfast: two eggs, homemade biscuit, home fries with sour cream and homemade pork sausage patties or grilled pork chop with stewed apple topping (Venus, Berkeley)

Nationwide, there is equilibrium. Mintel numbers show 44 percent of diners cite healthy foods, while 42 percent mention indulgent ones as factors in choosing a restaurant. No better proof exists than the shredded carrot hash browns at Community Food & Juice in New York, and that the second location of Norma’s sells its Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata in Palm Springs. In both, flavor is the first ingredient.