When I was growing up, my process for finding fast food to meet my dietary needs went like this: I’d pore over the major chains’ nutritional information, which wasn’t easy to find back then, to identify menu items that were lower in fat and calories. I loved (and still love) fast food, so I had many a meal that featured Taco Bell’s Border Lights Burrito Supreme (eight grams of fat) or a grilled chicken sandwich from McDonald’s (250 calories). That was how I lost 60 lbs. as a teenager.
But today’s dieters have different and more varied needs. Some are gluten conscious. Some focus specifically on cutting down on added sugar. Others are looking to eat more protein-rich foods. And then there are those who want more plant-based diets.
While the fast-food industry has taken steps over the years to be more transparent with its nutritional information, it’s been slow to adapt to changing dietary needs. The exception, however, is Panera Bread, which recently launched three curated menus — Plant Based, Protein Rich, and Nutrient-Packed — to its existing curated Gluten Conscious and Sodium Conscious menus aimed specifically at making it easier for customers with specific tastes or dietary preferences.
So for instance, the Plant-Based menu offers customers a list of menu items featuring almonds and quinoa as its main protein, and fresh produce like romaine, arugula, avocado, citrus, and blueberries. For those who want more protein, all of the items on the Protein Rich menu like the Avocado Cobb Salad contain at least 20% of the recommended daily value of protein. And for those focused on the right balance of calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber and protein, there’s the Nutrient-Packed menu with items such as the Blueberry and White Balsamic Salad.
I recently visited my neighborhood Panera Bread in Northridge, California and was pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was to adhere to any of these dietary palates. Each menu lists all the items that fit under those dietary guidelines, so all customers have to do is choose from the items on that specific menu. In recent weeks, I have tried to eat more plant-based foods, and it was nice not to have to wonder whether the grilled cheese sandwich and creamy tomato soup that I ordered were okay to eat.
“We think people should be able to eat the way they want, whether it’s by customizing a menu item to their own tastes or knowing they have many food options to choose from,” said Katie Bengston, Panera Bread’s nutrition manager. “The new curated menus are another way we’re making it easier for our guests to order great food that works for their lifestyle.”
Expect more of the major fast food chains to follow Panera’s lead in offering more specific dietary menus. Consumers’ tastes are changing, and changing often. We’re way beyond simply counting fat and calories. Panera soon won’t be the only one keeping pace.
Nevin Barich is the Food & Beverage analyst for Industry Intelligence, a Los Angeles-based market intelligence firm. It's the perfect job for him: He loves junk food, he often works besides a glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, and anytime one of the health nuts in his office gives him grief for eating a Big Mac, he gets to smile and say: "Hey, this is my job." Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.