It now seems that the fast-food industry is the next sector to get a real-food makeover as health-conscious consumers opt for food made with fresh, natural ingredients that are free from additives, antibiotics, and other artificial components when they dine out or want a grab-and-go meal option.
Fast meets fresh
According to US-based market research firm The NPD Group, the new fast food trend has shifted toward food and beverages that are considered wholesome and real, with the use of fresh ingredients a key factor.
According to the firm’s research, consumers under the age of 40, predominantly millennial and generation Z consumers are eating 52% more fresh vegetables and 59 percent more frozen vegetables than consumers did a decade ago. In contrast, baby boomers — those aged 60 and older — now eat 30 percent less fresh vegetables and four percent less frozen vegetables.
In addition, NPD’s National Eating Trends food and beverage tracker shows that millennials are also more cognizant of the harmful effects of additives, food chemicals and pesticides in their foods, which now also impacts their fast-food choices.
This has driven a shift in menu options across a number of fast food and restaurant chains globally, with healthier alternatives included as options, or certain ingredients being removed and replaced with more healthful ones in the preparation of existing menu items.
The new hero
Speciality outlets that offer wall-to-wall healthful real food options have also emerged around the globe. In the U.S. these include brands such as Chipotle, Veggie Grill, Holy Chicken, Freshii and Farmer’s Table Express, to name a few.
Collectively known as fast-casual dining, these restaurants prepare real, wholesome food in-house in the traditional quick-service restaurant environment where customers can order and pick up their food from a counter instead of eating in.
Locally, this trend is being driven by Real Foods, the parent company to Nü Health Food Café and Kauai. Kauai, for instance, aims to “inspire a ‘real food’ revolution in South Africa” by leading the healthy fast-casual food industry and promoting the benefits of healthy eating and living.
By eating at these ‘fast-food’ outlets health-conscious consumers can order a wide variety of options all made with the best seasonal and locally-sourced ingredients where vegetables are predominantly the ‘hero’ ingredient. From plant-based meatless proteins to creative uses of other vegetables such as kale, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage, to name a few, you’re now likely to find these hero ingredients in everything from main meals to smoothies and juices.
It seems that the trend toward fast-casual food and dining is being driven by more than just the health benefits. Sustainability, reducing food waste, and the humane treatment of animals are among the other common reasons cited as drivers of this shift in consumer buying behaviour and food consumption trends. Industry pundits have coined this trend ‘mindful dining’.
By purchasing foods that have been grown and reared in ethical ways, consumers can feel good about themselves while eating out because they feel that by choosing to buy from companies that focus on sustainability, they are doing their bit to help the environment.
This is helping to drive shifts in both farming practices and the rise in vegetarian and vegan meal options, as plant-based protein is often a more environmentally friendly and sustainable option than meat and dairy.
This shift in eating habits has actually seen a decline in beef farming, which is the most resource-intensive form of livestock farming and is a primary contributor to greenhouse emissions. While the overall trend in animal-based protein consumption continues to grow, chicken and lamb consumption are on the rise while beef and veal consumption in parts of the developed and post-industrial world are on the decline, according to Euromonitor International.
This does not mean that more people are becoming vegans or vegetarians, though. They are, however, opting to include more meat-free meals in their diets and many of them are looking to speciality food outlets to get their plant-based food fix. Whether it’s pea-protein burgers or dairy-free ice cream desserts, there are now endless convenient, healthy options available.
With all of these developments, it seems that the main factor that led to the rise in popularity in fast food – convenience – is set to make the concept of fast-casual eating the next big thing, which is good for our health, our waistlines and, it seems, the environment.