Since 2007, consumers’ desire to try different foods and flavors has increased significantly. More and more, consumers are looking east to the Mediterranean to get their fix of flavorful foods. According to a study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, â€˜valueâ€™ as a factor in food purchase decisions rose by 6%, while flavor—specifically the â€˜cravabilityâ€™ of food—climbed 10 points.
Both commercial and noncommercial operators have taken notice. Chicago-based research firm Mintel included Mediterranean-style dining in their annual Menu Trend Predictions, reporting that in the past year restaurants introduced more items inspired by Italian, Greek, French and Moroccan flavors.
!(border left)/files/0004/2168/Updated-Mediterranean-Pyramid_medium.jpg!In another study, 45% of noncommercial operators said they menu Mediterranean-style items and 10% in the study said they believe that Mediterranean is a â€˜hotâ€™ cuisine and expected it to become more popular.
While consumers are trying Mediterranean-style menu items for their flavor, operators love them because they represent an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. Mediterranean-style items tend to use many less expensive items—fruits, vegetables and grains—that also happen to pack a better-for-you punch as well. What’s healthy for operators’ bottom lines also happens to be healthier nutritionally for diners.
Hallmarks of the Mediterranean Diet
The nutritional benefits of the foods of countries from Spain to Greece have been encapsulated in what’s known as the â€˜Mediterranean Diet.â€™ The Mediterranean Diet is not actually a diet, but more of an eating style that many scientists have cited as promoting a healthy lifestyle and contributing to lower rates of many cancers, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle-related illnesses. The Mediterranean Diet pyramid is frequently compared to the traditional USDA pyramid and is similar to it in many ways.
The differences between the two are more a function of recommended percentages of each food group and some of the types of items within the groups.
- Grains such as breads, pasta, rice, couscous, potatoes, bulgur and other grains are recommended for daily consumption. Whole grains and minimally processed items are recommended over processed grains.
- Also recommended for daily consumption are fruits, vegetables and a variety of beans, legumes, and nuts. Many legumes are excellent sources of protein and fiber, both essential to a balanced diet. Nuts, while high in fat, contain â€˜goodâ€™ or monounsaturated fats and are recommended in moderate servings, usually 8-10 nuts per serving. These are plant-based foods that should form the basis of every meal as they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. In contrast, the American diet puts meat at the â€˜center of the plate.â€™
- Fats are not a dirty word in the Mediterranean Diet. In fact they are essential. The key is to use them sparingly and to choose those that are high in monounsaturated fats. This makes olive oil the fat of choice. It’s used as a cooking medium in place of butter, and to dress salads or use in recipes. The typical American diet relies on foods that are high in saturated fat, which is seen as contributing to higher rates of cancers, heart diseases and other illnesses. Olive oil may also be consumed daily. Total fat consumption should range from less than 25% to more than 35% of energy.
- Cheese and yogurt appear in the middle of the pyramid, the last of the food groups that may be comfortably incorporated into a daily menu as an excellent source of calcium. Low fat and nonfat versions are preferred.
- One of the biggest differences between the Mediterranean Diet pyramid and the USDA pyramid is the role meats and dairy play. Poultry and fish servings are recommended only a few times per week, and then in smaller portions. Red meat is viewed as a â€˜special occasionâ€™ item, to be on the menu only a few times per month. The USDA pyramid places a higher emphasis on proteins and makes little distinction between the levels of consumption of various types.
- Eggs are most frequently used in baking in Mediterranean countries, and the average person should anticipate having up to four eggs per week. Sweets are also consumed sparingly, with treats such as gelato or pastries served in small portions, again only a few times weekly.
Mediterranean on the Menu
In response to consumers’ search for more Mediterranean-style cravable and healthier menu items, several restaurants are revamping their appetizer and entrÃ©e menus to include these choices.
- Macaroni Grill has introduced Mediterranean flavors to its guests with new items such as a prosciutto sandwich on focaccia and grilled skewers of center-cut lamb served with fresh rosemary and garlic olive oil.
- Roti is a Mediterranean concept with locations in Chicago and Washington, D.C., offering an array of fresh salads, grilled kabobs, falafel and a Moroccan rice bowl dish. Its website also provides a list of gluten-free items, and the Chicago location is also open for breakfast traffic.
- Domino’s Pizza has reformulated its pizza to boost flavor through addition of Mediterranean-style flourishes including garlic-seasoned crust, bolder and sweeter tomato sauce and new cheese blend.
- Mediterranean dining style also plays well with younger consumers. Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., offers students a variety of roasted and grilled vegetables, and entrees featuring lean roast beef and grilled chicken with roasted red peppers and feta cheese. Salads get the Mediterranean treatment through the use of olives, olive oil and specialty oils, flavored vinegars and legumes such as chickpeas. Colleges are increasingly adding Mediterranean-style items to the menu because they see it as a way to offer healthy meal choices without calling it out as â€˜healthy.â€™