Despite declines in foodservice business as consumers eat out less, produce plays a key part in adding value to meals and enhancing freshness.

Research this year from Chicago-based Mintel Group showed a 49% increase in consumers buying “healthy” menu items based on produce in the meal being described as fresh, said Maria Caranfa, Mintel’s director of menu insights.

“Fresh is universally applicable,” Caranfa said during a panel discussion on growth in foodservice and restaurants during the United Fresh Produce Association annual meeting in Las Vegas on April 22.

Mintel’s research also found a 20% increase between 2006 and 2008 in the amount of fresh produce used in restaurant food, Caranfa said. That’s due in part to more consumers wanting healthier menu choices but also keeping down costs by reducing the amount of protein offered in menu items.

Gary Schwartz, vice president of supply chain management for P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz., said the company doesn’t use any frozen produce at its more than 350 restaurants.

Schwartz said that’s parts of the restaurants’ “DNA” and menu, which uses lettuce, broccoli, green onions and snap peas more than any other food item. Schwartz said the company spends far more money on fresh produce than meat and has introduced new lower-priced entrees that feature more vegetables.