As the hospitality sector shifts back into gear after two years of turmoil due to the global pandemic, new research indicates that catering to a younger, health-conscious customer base could help the industry return to its former glory.
The research, conducted by the University of South Australia, Flinders University and New Zealand's University of Otago, found more than a quarter of customers would be happy to pay premium prices for healthier products.
The peer-reviewed study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found 27 percent of consumers would pay nearly double the price for 'healthy' drink options that contain small amounts of or no sugar, natural or no additives or are enriched with vitamins and minerals.
In a study of consumers from Australia and New Zealand, the researchers determined that younger consumers aged 18 to 24 were more likely than older diners to be interested in healthy drinks. Those who ate out more frequently were also more willing to pay a larger premium for the privilege.
It's a welcome finding for a sector that's been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic, but it's also a step in the right direction in terms of public health, said lead researcher Associate Professor Rob Hallak from the University of South Australia.
"As COVID-19 restrictions ease, many people are re-embracing the café lifestyle. But hand in hand with increased patronage comes a long-standing criticism that the sector provides food and drinks that are too high in fat, salt and sugar," Assoc Prof Hallak said.
"While nutritional content in foods has gradually improved over the years, drinks that are high in sugar and calories are still prevalent in the restaurant and café sector.
"Our research shows that there's a relatively untapped market of younger, health-conscious consumers, particularly in relation to drinks.
"By tackling the beverage 'health dollar', the sector would not only benefit from the profits, but also demonstrate proactive support for Australia's new National Obesity Strategy announced earlier this year."
In Australia, obesity contributes to a range of chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Two in three Australian adults (67 percent) and one in four children (25 percent) are currently considered overweight or obese.
In New Zealand, obesity affects one in three adults (35 percent) and one in eight children (13 percent).
More than 1000 consumers from Australia and New Zealand were surveyed in the study, revealing those who ate out at least once per week were inclined to pay more for healthier drinks, and those who ate out more often were willing to pay a premium.
Associate Professor Ilke Onur from Flinders University in Adelaide said the evidence of strong consumer demand should drive innovation and product development in the sector.
"Our study highlights the need for a collaborative effort among government, beverage manufacturers and the hospitality sector in increasing the variety and supply of healthy product options," Assoc Prof Onur said.
"By developing new products that are healthy, taste good and reasonably priced, takeaway and dine-in restaurants could reinvigorate the sector.
"Hospitality firms and beverage manufacturers are dealing with well-informed consumers who read product labels and assess ingredients and additives. So, the healthiness of the product must be scientifically supported and validated by reputable bodies."
Co-researcher Dr Craig Lee from the University of Otago agreed, adding: "Drink sales represent up to 40 percent of food service revenues. By improving the healthiness of dining out (or eating in) across the entire menu, including drinks, restaurants could really capitalise on this opportunity.
"It will be interesting to see who moves first in this space; the market is right there for the taking."
The researchers noted that their findings are focused on consumers purchasing 'healthy' drinks when dining out or buying from hospitality businesses, such restaurants, pubs and cafes - but not from supermarkets.
In Australia, dining out (or ordering in) accounts for 27 percent of weekly household food and drink expenditure, amounting to more than AU$45 billion per year or nearly AU$100 per household per week. In the UK, 20 percent of people eat out at least weekly and in the US, more household food expenditure goes to eating out than at home.