You can’t handle the truth!” is the most famous line from the 1992 courtroom drama “A Few Good Men” starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. In the Academy Award-nominated film the “truth” in question has to do with a violent crime.

Yet, this statement also has validity in the foodservice snacks, appetizers and sides category. Here, though, the “truth” is that this refrigerated and frozen food category has an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, consumers are saving money by cutting back on appetizers when eating out and, on the other they are snacking more than ever.

Chicago-based research firm Technomic says its recent report series, “Left Side of the Menu”, indicates that consumers are ordering appetizers less frequently.

“Consumers are trying to cut their dining budgets, in many cases by eliminating starters,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president, Technomic. The company reported that 33 percent of consumers were considered to be “heavy” purchasers of salads this year, compared to 51 percent in 2007; “heavy” consumers of appetizers have fallen from 40 percent to 24 percent during the same time period; and “heavy” soup consumers have decreased from 25 percent to 15 percent.

“To drive cravings and create interest in appetizers, salads and soups, operators must innovate with exciting dressings and dips, unusual ingredients and preparation techniques that can’t easily be duplicated at home,” said Tristano. “These encourage consumers to feel the experience is worth the extra cost.”

Meanwhile, New York-based research firm Packaged Facts teamed up with the San Francisco-based Center for Culinary Development, on the “Snack Foods Culinary Trend Mapping Report,” which indicated that “time-crunched” consumers are snacking more often and are craving snacks that “combine indulgence with health and higher quality ingredients.”

Simplot Food Group, Boise, Idaho, is one processor capitalizing on this trend with its line of savory side dishes. Simplot’s UpSides are made of ingredients such as gourmet pasta and polenta, which are individually quick frozen, to create healthy and unique dishes. This year, the company teamed up with celebrity chef Cat Cora to create unique, ethnic recipes for foodservice operators to make using Upsides. Dishes include Tomato & Shellfish Stew with Pearl Couscous & Red Grains and Three Cheese Polenta with Swiss Chard & Candied Pepitas.

While some consumers are looking for exotic culinary flavors from their appetizers, snacks and sides, some look at these meal occasions as an opportunity to indulge.

Even though a recent Technomic study indicated that more than half of consumers identified themselves as “fried food curtailers” or “fried food avoiders,” they also overwhelmingly identified fried foods as “tasty” (89 percent), “satisfying” (86 percent), “filling” (83 percent) and “something I crave” (80 percent).

“We don’t foresee a large drop in fried food sales because they are widely available and are frequently bundled with value meal purchases,” said Bob Goldin, Technomic executive vice president. “Fried foods are offered at a reasonable price point that has strong appeal across multiple consumer groups. The crispy texture and craveable flavor us something that they cannot duplicate at home.”

This year ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston expanded its fried food offerings, some of which allow foodservice operators to provide fried food with less guilt. Last year, the Eagle, Idaho-based potato and breaded product processor converted its entire product line of products including French fries and mashed potatoes to zero grams trans fat. This year saw Lamb Weston introduce Alexia all-natural and organic potato offerings, expand its Tantilizers appetizer line with Stuffed Spudz - chopped-and-formed potato bites - and add a line of breaded onion rings called World Rings. Lamb Weston also expanded its Sweet Things sweet potato line with medium-thick crinkle cut French fries, sweet potato “chips” and mildly seasoned battered dices.

In January, Andy Johnston vice president of marketing for Lamb Weston told R&FF Editor Bob Garrison, “Sweet potatoes are a little adventurous and different - and their popularity, in new formats like fries and chips, is really growing; even among consumers that don’t think they like sweet potatoes,” says Johnston. “Most importantly they have a health halo as one of the ‘super foods.’”

Fried foods with a health halo? That sounds like a “truth” that both foodservice operators and consumers can handle quite well. - C.C.