While there still appears to be some debate about which items fall under the recently minted category known as “superfoods,” restaurant operators hoping to cater to nutrition-minded consumers are learning the value of offering foods carrying that health halo.

An increasing number of foodservice operators are finding room in their pantries for such items as avocados, leafy greens like kale and spinach, cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, quinoa, blueberries, almonds and walnuts, as well as lean proteins like turkey and salmon.

But while superfood lists may be somewhat flexible, experts tend to agree upon a general definition of the term. “Superfoods are foods that tend to be nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and high in antioxidants,” says Constance Brown-Riggs, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They're foods that are associated with disease prevention and disease management.”

Some foods also are rich in omega-3 oils, like turkey breast, a lean protein that is high in B vitamins and amino acids like tryptophan. “Ounce for ounce meat sources will be the same in terms of protein content,” Brown-Riggs says. “So if you're looking for the leanest protein, turkey is a close second to fish.”

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago, says he's seen a lot of growth in the superfoods category in restaurants recently. “There are really two implications,” he says. “The introduction of these superfoods is good for both operators in the health segment as well as those who just want to provide healthier choices for their customers.”

In addition, he says, given the recent commodity spike in protein costs, operators are able to give more menu real estate to lower-priced items, which help to offset food cost increases. “This is a good time to spotlight produce,” he says.

In general, consumers are telling operators that they want to see healthier options on menus. According to a Technomic study on vegetables that polled 1,500 consumers aged 18 or over, 33 percent of respondents in 2010 said they were more likely to visit a restaurant that offers some healthy options — even if they didn't order them. By 2012, however, that figure had risen to 38 percent.

The same Technomic study revealed that 64 percent of consumers agree that it's important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition, up from 57 percent just three years earlier. Meanwhile, 65 percent say that foodservice operations can offer health food in a way that still tastes good.

Brown-Riggs, in fact, says more healthy superfoods are appearing on restaurant menus these days. “I'm seeing wonderful sandwiches with avocado and greens,” she says. “Restaurants are concentrating more on dark, leafy greens as opposed to iceberg lettuce. There's more variety in terms of whole grains, too, like quinoa or barley.”

And, she adds, offering a greater variety of nutritious foods on menus is helping people to eat healthier.

David LaBorde, director of product development for Salata, a 31-unit salad chain based in Houston, offers more than 50 items on its Chipotle-like serving line, enabling customers to broaden their selection of healthful items. For one set price, Salata customers can personalize their salads, choosing from a variety of toppings and dressings.

Characterized as a “Next Generation Salad Bar,” Salata offers such selections as kale, spinach, spring mix, alfalfa sprouts, almonds, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cilantro, dried cranberries, green beans, green peas, pumpkin seeds, snow peas, sugar snap peas and sunflower seeds.

And while the chain doesn't currently offer such trendy grains as quinoa, LaBorde says Salata is considering rolling it out in the future. “We've had a lot of requests,” he says.

Pit-smoked turkey breast is a recent permanent addition to the Salata's lineup. Introduced around Thanksgiving as an LTO, turkey proved to be so popular with customers, the chain decided to make it permanent. LaBorde says turkey now accounts for more than 10 percent of protein sales, which includes grilled chicken breast, roasted salmon and shrimp.

Turkey is increasingly showing up on restaurant menus teamed up with other superfoods. Ruggles Green in the Houston area offers quinoa linguini with turkey meatballs, while Nature's Table in Orlando, Fla., features turkey served on grilled focaccia bread with pesto, spinach, chèvre and tomato.

Yet, while nutritional concerns continue to drive interest in superfoods, flavor remains the most critical component when it comes to the development of a menu item. At the trendsetting Seasons 52, Cliff Pleau, director of culinary, says Darden Restaurants' 38-unit casual-dining chain is “focused on flavor first and foremost. Our objective is to create dishes that maintain the harmony and balance of all the ingredients.

“The wealth of information available about food, nutrition and healthy cooking allows people to make informed choices whether cooking at home or dining out,” he says. “However, most guests want to balance eating healthy food with some level of indulgence when dining out.”

To help give guests at Seasons 52 that balance, Pleau and his staff design items that hit on several cylinders. For instance, the chain offers a turkey burger that has been grilled over an open flame and flavored with a tamarind barbecue glaze and Jack cheese. Like all of Seasons 52 menu items, the turkey burger contains fewer than 475 calories. As a side dish at lunch, guests can accompany the burger with an order of quinoa and citrus salad. The salad is prepared by cooking and cooling the quinoa and then combining it with rehydrated cranberries, mint, ginger, orange segments, jicama, citrus zest, orange and lemon juice and olive oil.

In addition, Seasons 52 offers a turkey skewer, which is prepared by placing chunks of white meat turkey on a skewer and grilling them over an open flame. The turkey is basted with zinfandel barbecue sauce and served on a bed of grilled vegetable-farro, which includes corn, red peppers, haricots vert, parsley, garlic and olive oil.

Pleau says all three items are popular with guests. “In fact, we update the quinoa salad seasonally to highlight seasonal herbs and fruits,” he says.

In the meantime, foodservice operators continue to explore the use of healthful items — including superfoods — on their menus. “It's good to see more of these items on the menu,” says Brown-Riggs. “Greater variety will drive customer purchases, which is what [operators] are working toward. If you look around, you can see that this is what many operators are doing. And if you want to survive, it behooves you to have a few menu options available.”