Woman reading nutrition panel
The latest menu and product claims point to changing consumer perceptions of quality – from antibiotic-free meats to farmer workers’ rights.

KANSAS CITY — As the market continues to grow with innovative menu items and products that respond to changing consumer needs, feel-good claims that resonate with the evolving expectations are also expanding.

Foods with one or more “free-from” claim dominate today’s supermarket aisles, and restaurant menus at all levels are rife with mission statements declaring a commitment to ingredient transparency. Both regulated claims, like “organic” and “gluten-free,” and unregulated marketing terms, like “natural,” have become common.

To attract attention and boost consumer confidence, marketers are turning to new terms on menus and labels that appeal to those who want to know more about their food — and who want to make educated choices, quickly, that they may feel confident about.

Gluten-free menus
Twenty-four per cent of menus feature gluten-free callouts.

“While both menus and product labels are impacted by government regulations, restaurants are often more liberal in their call-outs as they are less likely to have them enforced and in many cases print menus daily so they may focus on specific farm sourcing that a manufacturer isn’t able to guarantee,” said Claire Conaghan, senior account manager for Chicago-based Datassential.

Menu identifiers have become a selling point for restaurant diners, though there is some concern such claims may deter non-allergic consumers from some items, Ms. Conaghan said.

“Callouts to allergens [on menus] including gluten-free (on 24% of menus), dairy-free, nut-free, etc., are still growing, but more and more restaurants seem to be preferring to ask customers on the front end about allergies so they can discuss options with them rather than declare them on the menu,” she said.

Hardee's All Natural Burger
In July 2015, Hardee's introduced the All-Natural Burger, made with grass-fed and free-range beef.

Some additional menu terms showing growth in Datassential studies include “sustainable” (up 148% over the past four years and now found on 1% of US menus); “grass-fed” (up 136% over the past four years and now found on 3% of menus); and protein call-outs (up 71%, including high protein and plant-based protein). Smaller penetration terms still found on less than 1% of menus showing growth include “soy-free,” “superfood,” “sprouted” and “nitrite-“ or “nitrate-free,” according to Datassential.

The company reports that “local” ingredient claims continue to appear more frequently on restaurant menus, up 65% over the past four years and now on 14% of menus. However, Ms. Conaghan said "local" has shown some slowing of growth as consumers realize what “local” for their region could mean.

“For example, eating local in the Midwest during winter months really limits your options,” she said.