As consumers continue to seek more healthful menu options in their dining-out experience, foodservice operators are increasingly turning to turkey as a flavorful alternative for other proteins.

Menu makers are discovering just how versatile turkey can be as they introduce innovative new foodservice preparations across all dayparts, menu categories and industry segments. At the same time, the rising cost of beef is making turkey even more attractive to operators who are closely monitoring their food costs during these intensely competitive times

“Expect to see more turkey introduced on menus as the cost of beef increases,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, Inc., Chicago. “I think we will see [turkey] consumption rise across the board ... with [the addition of] tacos, burgers and other more traditional items. Turkey is leaner, healthier and less expensive.”

A 3-ounce serving of boneless, skinless turkey breast contains 26 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and 0 grams of saturated fat, according to the National Turkey Federation. That represents 8 percent more protein than the same-size serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast or trimmed top loin beefsteak, NTF says.

Julia Gallo-Torres, foodservice analyst for Chicago-based Mintel, points out that many consumers no longer associate turkey only with seasonal events. “It's more on their radar [when they dine out],” she says. “They're asking for it as an alternative to other meats.”

Meanwhile, chefs and operators are working to accommodate consumer demand by offering turkey in a variety of menu applications. According to the Mintel research, the Top 10 flavor indicators associated with menuing turkey last year were smoked, slow-smoked, seasoned, barbecue, spicy, mesquite smoked, lightly seasoned, hickory smoked and savory.

However, menu makers also are looking for newer ways to bring turkey to the table. According to Technomic's Menu Monitor, the incidence of turkey burgers appearing on menus increased 48.4 percent between the fourth quarter of 2013 and the same period in 2012. A number of quick-service brands, in fact, have introduced turkey burgers in an effort to corral more health-conscious patrons. Miami-based Burger King led the way among the Big Three quick-service burger chains last spring when it debuted its turkey burger as a limited-time offer. The 530-calorie sandwich featured a charbroiled turkey patty, lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayonnaise.

But Burger King was not the first major quick-service chain to enter the turkey burger arena. In 2011, Carpinteria, Calif.-based CKE Restaurants' Carl's Jr. and Hardee's chains rolled out turkey burgers that included teriyaki, guacamole and jalapeño variations.

Meanwhile, savvy operators are finding that burgers are not the only vehicle available to showcase turkey's menu versatility.

Del Taco, a Mexican quick-service chain based in Irvine, Calif., rang in the New Year by introducing Turkey Tacos, a new permanent menu item, at its 547 locations. Each Turkey Taco contains 150 calories and 33 percent less fat than Del Taco's beef tacos. Del Taco also offers turkey in its CrunchTada tostada items. “We’re proud to accommodate the growing number of guests who prefer turkey as a protein option but still want great flavor,” says John Cappasola, executive vice president and chief brand officer,.

Operators also are discovering that turkey and turkey products can be natural additions to a restaurant's breakfast menu. According to Technomic's Menu Monitor, the menu incidence for turkey bacon and turkey sausage rose 5.6 percent and 30 percent, respectively, when comparing the fourth quarter of 2013 to the same period in 2012.

Fast-casual brands such as Einstein Bros Bagel have broken new ground in the breakfast daypart by emphasizing turkey and turkey products on the menu. Currently, the Lakewood, Colo.-based chain features a Southwest Turkey Sausage breakfast sandwich under its Smart Choices section, which promises the item contains fewer than 350 calories and 15 grams of fat. In addition to the turkey sausage, the sandwich includes egg whites, plain cream cheese, and pepper jack cheese with tomatillo salsa on a plain bagel thin single.

Quick-service chains are getting into the breakfast act, too. Dunkin’ Donuts in Canton, Mass., broadened its DDSMART menu when it debuted its Sliced Turkey Breakfast Sandwich. The 310-calorie sandwich is prepared with three slices of turkey, an egg and a slice of reduced-fat Cheddar cheese, served on multigrain flatbread. It also can be served as a Wake-Up Wrap on a warm tortilla, for 160 calories.

Family-dining operator Denny's also is finding new ways to menu turkey products.  The Spartanburg, S.C.-based chain is offering a Fit Fare Breakfast Sandwich Plate, which includes two strips of turkey bacon, pepper jack cheese, spinach, tomato and an egg cooked to order, served on a toasted English muffin with a side of yogurt and seasonal fruit.

In the meantime, ongoing trends indicate that turkey is expected to play even more of an important role in menu development. “People are taking a more holistic approach to health, and turkey presents an opportunity to reach them,” Gallo-Torres says. “I think we will be seeing a lot of turkey on menus.”