Food Trend Spotlight: Functional Foods & Eating for Immunity

Functional foods are those that offer health benefits that extend beyond their basic nutritional value. As more consumers seek foods that promise health benefits like added energy or increased immunity, functional foods, like lentils, can help you satisfy customer demand while also delivering on taste and menu appeal.

Satisfying Health Desires and Innovating on Trends

Whole foods that serve a specific purpose, such as providing energy or satiety, are trending on menus at quick-serve restaurants. [1] Ingredients like lentils have increased in popularity as consumers seek out their functional health benefits.

As a low-cost, high-quality plant protein source, lentils help provide long-lasting energy to get consumers through the day, with 12 grams of protein in one ½ cup serving. They are also high in fiber, offering 32% of the recommended daily value in a ½ cup serving. This combination of high protein and high fiber in lentils provides a satiating effect, keeping customers satisfied and full for longer — which can in turn increase demand for plant-forward dishes and encourage repeat purchases. Corporate Chef James Bickmore-Hutt notes that in addition to keeping customers satisfied, lentils can shine in dishes across dayparts: “Functional nutrition and diet-tailored consumption are great avenues for cross-utilization of lentils that allow for flavorful menu applications. Operationally, they are approachable for lower skilled labor in the back of house with set-and-forget techniques detailed on our cheat sheet, as well as a really easy way to convey flavor in a dish.”

An emerging diet-tailored trend is the inclusion of superfoods, which have increased in prevalence as consumers look to get more nutritional value from dishes. [1] Whole ingredients like lentils can be categorized as both a superfood and a functional food, positioning them well for Limited Time Offers (LTO) in seasonal power bowls and other menu items. Introductions of power bowls often peak at the start of the year as consumers aim to achieve new diet goals. Protein-heavy bowls earn high marks from consumers, and with their high protein content, lentils are a great fit for bowls that are plant-based and/or plant-forward and appeal to those who seek functional nutrition when eating out. [2]

Consumers find the most appeal for functional eating at the start of the day. “With the age-old proverb of ‘the most important meal of the day,’ breakfast offers solutions including functional beverages and entrees. Smoothies, globally inspired comfort dishes, and nostalgic favorites like breakfast burritos are all fair game for the application of lentils,” says Chef James.

When asked about dining out of the home, consumers say that lentils are appealing because they are perceived to be healthy and great tasting. [3] If you’re looking to increase the perception of better-for-you items on your menu, in an appealing way, consumers naturally associate these attributes with lentils already.

What’s more, most consumers say that they are willing to pay for higher protein content in a menu item, meaning lentils could command a small price premium as the anchor of a plant-based bowl or dish. [3]

Boosting Immunity and Flavor

In addition to food that fuels, consumers are increasingly paying close attention to immunity-boosting ingredients. A 2021 survey shows that the importance of immunity increased for 1 in 3 consumers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [4] Nearly half of consumers surveyed (48%) said that they are willing to pay more for menu items at restaurants that offer immunity functional benefits.

Consumers recognize lentils as an ingredient that they believe could help boost immunity and/or strengthen recovery in case of illness. They also identify high fiber and high protein as nutrients that offer the same benefits, both of which lentils provide in just 140 calories per ½ cup serving, as well as nutrients including potassium, folate, iron, and manganese. [4]

Consumers care about taste as well as nutrition, and in some cases the flavor experience is worth more to them than the functional benefits of a dish. [4] With lentils, your customers don’t have to compromise — they can reap the health benefits of a high-protein, plant-based food while enjoying global flavors and unique texture and tastes.

For inspiration on how to incorporate lentils on your foodservice menu to boost functional foods and eating, click here.

[1] Datassential MenuTrends 2020
[2] Datassential Scores 2020
[3] Datassential Lentil Perceptions consumer omnibus August 2021
[4] Datassential Immunity Seekers August 2021