The feel-good food megatrend continues to gain momentum

Consumers seek food that satisfy their needs, intake, sentiment about food

The feel-good food movement is gaining overwhelming traction and it has permeated the national conversation about eating and dining choices in the United States. An important development in the last couple of years is that being healthy is defined by consumers in their own ways, including whether food is considered nutritious, contains functional or desirable ingredients, or is free from artificial ingredients, or even allergens.

According to the International Food Industry Council’s 2017 Food and Health Survey, respondents primarily identified healthy food as that which has healthy components or is clean label (“free from”). Nearly 30 percent categorized healthy food as having healthy components or nutrients, ranking that as the #1 definition. Almost 15 percent indicated food that is free from “artificial ingredients, preservatives or additives” as being their top selection criteria of eating healthy.

Desperately seeking healthy, whatever it might mean

These modern-day feelings about eating are pumping up this feel-good food megatrend. In addition to nutritional and functional goals, some consumers are gravitating toward local and sustainable ingredients because these are part of their “healthy paradigm.” Others may seek a more traditional definition: foods that are lower in calories, saturated fats, salt or sugar.

In 2017, research firm Technomic, Inc. cited “food beyond fuel” as an important trend to watch that year and that restaurant operators had expressed a balanced approach as the best way to address the desire for healthy meal options. There is certainly no doubt that the topic of healthy is part of national movement toward food that we can feel good about and improves longevity. Because healthy is being defined in a variety of ways, this ups the ante for restaurant operators on foodservice innovation and menu development to come up with a balanced set of meal options that will appeal to diners.

In its State of the Industry Report, the National Restaurant Association found that 70 percent of consumers felt that healthy food options influenced where they dine out. Restaurants are responding to consumer desire for healthier options, also. An impressive 47 percent of casual-dining operators, and 51 percent of fast casuals, for example, indicated they are offering more meals that are considered nutritious, according to the report.


A healthy meal can’t just be healthy for its own sake, but it must also be served in a convenient manner for today’s time-starved consumer. The success of salad chains, like Washington, D.C.-based Sweetgreen, and fast casuals, like Au Bon Pain, have proven the viability of model of providing healthier options to diners, particularly in the urban landscape—healthy as defined by nutrition or healthier attributes.

Sweetgreen, which started out primarily as a salad chain, adapted to the feel-good food movement and increased its menu options over time to include veggie, grain and protein bowls, which function as heartier entrees, in addition to their time-honored, but not so traditionally-composed, salads.

Major restaurant chains respond to feel-good food movement

Au Bon Pain adopted the marketplace environment (grab-and-go service system in which consumers pick up items like they would at a corner store or food market) at the turn of the century and at the same time increased the number of quick, healthy options it offered. Its own version of small plates in the form of mini vegetable creations, protein samplings and fruit bites were a trend-setter at the time and have evolved over time into their Bon-to-Go offerings. (See examples below.)

The feel-good food mega trend: au bon pain, sweetgreen

These same healthy, to-go offerings have been emulated by other bakery-cafes and coffee houses nationwide. Au Bon Pain customers have been quick to embrace a variety of juices, fruit cups, granola packs and fresh-prepared muesli—items that are convenient for both purchase and consumption.

The grocery channel has benefited from an increased desire for healthy and functional food that serves a specific purpose of wellness. A variety of categories found at food retailers, including salad and breakfast bars, heat-and-serve meals, grilled meats, and other food offerings at the deli counters are examples. Retailer categories, including natural juices, functional drinks, smoothies, plant-based foods, and frozen foods can address consumer desire for clean, functional and nutritious meals.

Aside from the success stories of heavy hitters in the juice category, including Bai beverages and Bolthouse Farms fruit and veggie smoothies, protein drinks and milk-alternative products, there is the meal-replacement category, which has also benefited and offers up lessons to quick-serve operators. “I have seen people become more and more educated and interested in the foods we eat,” says Zach Breeding, Clinical Manager at Kate Farms, which provides organic, nutrition-dense, meal-replacement shakes. “Liquid nutrition is and should not be any different, so people are reading labels more and paying more attention to what they put in their bodies.”


Clean-label growth and restaurants

According to Mintel research, nearly over 40 percent of consumers consider clean-label foods healthy. “More consumers will check food labels for ingredients they know are additives, preservatives or don’t recognize when grocery shopping,” says NPD. The value of the clean-label foods market, broadly, exceeds $165B, according to research report syndicator Research and Markets. While the grocery industry may have been the first to see this penchant toward clean-label foods, restaurants are also witnessing it and responding. Clean-label has spilled into foodservice with a vengeance..”

Diners are looking for simple and clean ingredients, too. Ingredients should be easy to understand and not numerous. Meal composition should reflect minimal processing and lack unwanted ingredients, including artificial colors and preservatives. Even the growth of organic (free from pesticides) sales points to the desire for clean foods. Panera Bread said it has removed artificial ingredients from its entire menu: “100% of our food is 100% clean. That means no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and no colors from artificial sources. And it applies to our U.S. food menu and Panera at Home grocery products too,” notes a statement on its website.

Just as Au Bon Pain was a trend-setter in offering quick, healthier meal and snack options in urban outposts, Panera Bread has likewise become a major player in the clean-label movement nationally, and perhaps, too, represents the face of the how the restaurant industry can respond to the desire for clean food. Breeding says that people are much more aware of foods they are consuming and that media has played a significant role.

People have become obsessed with nutrition and food marketers have responded to the nutritional claims that are part of this movement to build profits. Foodservice operators should be mindful of the variety of competitive, healthy options at food retailers, like those offered by Kate Farms, which consumers may feel have more nutrition, and to some, may be more convenient to consume as drinks than competing food options at fast-casual restaurants.


Feel-good foods are requiring the need for an omnichannel-ish outlet for healthy, clean and functional meal options served and consumed with a high degree of convenience. Restaurants responding to this mega trend and keeping pace with evolving sentiment about healthy food consumption will yield more profitable results. “Fast-casual places like Chipotle and Panera Bread are big national chains that have picked up on these trends,” says Breeding. “…there still needs to be quite a bit of vetting on messaging and which ingredients are used and why. The trend is only growing.”

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