Healthy seafood preparations on the rise

A long-time favorite preparation method for seafood — fried — is losing its share on U.S. chain and independent restaurant menus, according to new data from menu research firm Datassentials.

Fried still has just over 43.3 percent menu penetration, but has declined four percent over the past year and 14 percent over the past four years, and it’s taking similar preparations perceived as unhealthy down with it.

“There’s consumer demand for things that are upscale and indulgent but have a healthier perception,” Maeve Webster, Datassentials senior director told SeafoodSource. “If you look at things that might accompany it, people are more comfortable if sides are fried and not as healthy in perception instead of as a main part of the entrée, they feel a little better about what they’re ordering. Seafood on its own has a very healthy perception beyond how it’s prepared, excluding battered and fried; then, even seafood loses the healthy halo it generally gets.

“The others make sense, breaded (down 6 percent for the year and 18 percent over 4 years) and deep fried go hand in hand with fried,” Webster said.

Seared and smoked seafood have gained ground on menus over the past four years, up 13 and 18 percent respectively, although seared is down 3 percent over the past year while smoked is up 8 percent.

Encrusted (up 3 percent from 2013 to 2014) and smoked (up 8 percent) have also seen growth in menu penetration for seafood.

“The term encrusted and other terms that are similar to it have a healthier perception, but if something’s encrusted it’s going to be fried in some way — pan-fried, deep-fried — but because encrusted sounds so much lighter and higher-end, consumers tend to think that it is healthier even thought it’s really the same process,” said Webster. “Smoking anything at this point is really, really popular, so that is not at all surprising.”

Webster said the changes are a combination of what consumers are asking for and the trends restaurant operators are setting.

“I really think it’s the segment that you’re looking at,” she told SeafoodSource. “So in fine dining, they’re really pushing trends through — what they think people should be exposed to, the next step, next evolution of food and that includes seafood. Once you get to a certain point it’s a combination of pushing and pulling. Chain restaurants can look at other segments and cherry pick what will work with their menu and their consumers.

“Then the consumer starts wanting to see it. It’s a tandem process. Looking at chains in particular, they want to cast the widest net for appeal to as many people as possible. They have to figure out if the consumer will try this or have interest in seeing it on menus while being creative. It’s a dual process.”

Despite the new data, Webster said fried seafood isn’t going anywhere.

“Fried is very popular. It’s tasty. People are sill going to have it once in a while. We’re a very, very long way off from seeing fried seafood or anything else disappear from menus,” she said. “We will continue to see a decline, I think, because operators are trying to offer a greater variety.” An indication that regional seafood promotions are working, menu descriptions of Prince Edward Island and Louisiana are up 2 percent and 4 percent respectively from 2013 to 2014.

“The PEI description is almost exclusively mussels,” said Webster. “We’ve seen that growing for quite some time because of the increased availability of mussels in general. People are feeling more comfortable with shellfish beyond coastal areas as you move into the interior of the country and everyone is interested in source. Probably a majority of consumers in the central part of the country don’t know a lot about PEI but when you can say PEI people will take you at your word, there’s a certain assumption like calling something Vermont cheddar — hey if you’re saying it’s from VT it must be really good.”

What seafood is not seeing is the same kind of preparations and techniques that are being seen in other center-of-the-plate proteins, like wood-fired.

“It’s a high-impact preparation and when it comes to seafood and fish high heat methods take a certain skill so the opportunity hasn’t really been applied to seafood and fish yet,” Webster said, adding that in order for that method to increase for seafood on menus options for value-added options for foodservice operators would have to increase.

“If there was a value-added product like that it would be a big opportunity for seafood.”


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