Health | September 2012 | By Sam Oches

Winning the Blame Game

Critics say fast food is partly to blame for the growing obesity epidemic. Here’s how the industry can start to prove critics wrong.

There’s a man who panhandles at a North Carolina grocery store every day, even in the intense, humid summers. His faithful dog, Sugar, keeps him company as passing motorists hand him money or maybe a small bag of groceries.

This man—let’s call him John—has found himself in a situation that is all too common in today’s economic environment. According to a September 2011 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of the nation’s population, live in poverty. And a recent Federal Reserve study found that the average American family’s median net worth dropped nearly 40 percent between 2007 and 2010, from $126,400 to $77,300.

Thing is, John is not a skinny man. In fact, standing no taller than five-foot-five and surely weighing in at more than 250 pounds, John is obese. At first blush, John’s situation is an interesting juxtaposition: A man who barely scrapes by and is forced to beg for money carries a weight associated with overabundance. But when 6 p.m. rolls around each day, critics might say his weight becomes a little bit clearer: John takes what money he’s collected for the day, ties Sugar to a tree across the street, and walks into a major national quick serve, where he gobbles down a burger for dinner.

Despite the difficult times that continue to plague most Americans, the quick-serve industry is once again picking up steam. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) predicted in its 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast that the quick-service industry would do $174 billion in U.S. sales this year, a 3.1 percent climb over 2011. Meanwhile, a recent report from financial services firm Rabobank estimated that consumer spending on food away from home will overtake spending on food at home by 2018, with quick serves being one of the primary beneficiaries.

“We view the dining-out trend as a very long-term trend,” says Nicholas Fereday, vice president and global senior analyst for Rabobank. “We just don’t think this is some type of sea change in people’s consumer response. All the indicators are that we’ll return to this long-term trend, as people are in the everlasting search for convenience.”

Indeed, convenience, along with affordability and taste, has always been a primary driver of fast food’s success. But as these qualities have fueled climbing sales at quick serves across the country, the obesity rate has also jumped to epidemic proportions. Today, more than one out of three adults and one out of six kids are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With the economy still struggling and folks like John increasingly turning to these affordable food options, critics—including nutritionists, politicians, and members of the media—have often suggested the industry has had a major hand in inflating the obesity numbers.

Right or wrong, the industry has earned a reputation as deliverer of unhealthy food to people who can’t afford to eat more meals at home.

While the CDC says there is no way to draw a straight line between obesity and income levels, it’s easier to do so with women than men. Forty-two percent of women with income below 130 percent of the poverty level (approximately $29,000 annually for a family of four) are obese, compared with 29 percent with income at or above 350 percent of the poverty level ($77,000) and 39 percent between 130 and 350 percent of the poverty level. For men, however, only 33 percent of men with income at or above 350 percent of the poverty level are obese, compared with 29 percent with income below 130 percent of the poverty level and 35 percent with income between 130 and 350 percent of the poverty level.

It’s impossible to prove that people like John are obese because of fast-food consumption. The point, however, is that this shouldn’t matter; none of these numbers should matter. What matters is the industry has taken its lumps and has a long way to go in cleaning up its reputation.

“I think the industry is fighting a bit of an uphill battle because they are an easy scapegoat, because it’s out there and very highly visible, and it is an easy target—people don’t necessarily take responsibility for their own eating behavior,” says Maeve Webster, director of Chicago-based research firm Datassential.

Of course, many companies have taken major steps to clean up their act. McDonald’s, for example, has rolled out healthier menu options while also developing active-lifestyle promotions, like its recent Olympics-themed “Champions of Play” initiative. But the actions of brands that haven’t moved the needle on fighting obesity and remain committed to unhealthy menus tend to overshadow the good steps the industry has taken.

Jim Doak, executive chef and director of menu development at Wisconsin-based burger concept Culver’s, says cleaning up the quick-serve industry’s name starts with consumers understanding the role its food plays in their weekly diets. For example, he says, an occasional Culver’s single Butter Burger paired with a side salad and tea fits nicely into a regular diet.

“It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s hard to understand everything that we’re doing. I think the fact that this is a problem that evolved over a long period of time—the obesity problem—it’s not something that’s going to get fixed overnight if we just stop serving gigantic drinks or start mandating calories on menus,” Doak says. “It’s going to take time to unwind this problem. But I think the thing you’ll see is that as an industry, we’re all dedicated to providing the guests with the information they need to make their decision and to empower them to make good choices.”

Offering the “information they need” seems to be key to many operators. All operators interviewed for this story say education is essential in today’s nutrition environment and that one of the primary responsibilities all brands have to their customers is informing them about what is in the food.

Webster says consumers are “sorely undereducated” when it comes to food and that the responsibility falls on quick-serve companies to bridge that gap if other outside factors can’t start to reverse Americans’ unhealthy dining habits.

“In order for the industry to respond, if other things don’t change, the industry is going to be left having to help with that education process, whether it’s providing information in-store or on websites, which a lot of operators already do,” Webster says. “Websites now are not just offering calorie counts for the specific items on the menu, but also how many calories, based on USDA recommendations, a person of such and such sex and height and whatever should be consuming, because they have to, to put anything in perspective for consumers.”

Webster adds that the consumer perspective is often skewed. According to Datassential statistics, customers often think they know more than they actually do about what makes a healthy, balanced diet. In the firm’s “Healthy Profits” study, only 58 percent of customers provided a “reasonable answer” when asked how many calories make up a balanced daily diet. The percentages of customers who did so for fat, protein, sodium, and carbohydrates were 13 percent, 12 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent, respectively.

Operators are also struggling with a perception problem. According to Datassential’s statistics, 87 percent of operators believe it’s important to offer healthy menu items, but only 44 percent have seen an increase in sales of such items.

David Stidham, vice president of marketing at Culver’s, confirms that’s a big conflict at the burger brand. He says the company conducts a “Deliciousness Council” of consumers who help advise the brand on what customers are looking for, which helps it “stay on the forefront of what our guests are needing and asking for.” But even when the Deliciousness Council asks for healthy items, Stidham says, customers rarely order them.

“We have to understand that fine balance between what people want and what people are buying, because that affects us all the way down to the supply chain in understanding what to source, when to source it, and how often to source it,” he says.

To help educate consumers so they can make more informed decisions, many operators have done as Webster suggested and rolled out websites and other information hubs to provide detailed nutritional information, from calorie counts of menu items to their sodium content. Big companies like McDonald’s and Panera Bread have involved online nutritional sources and games to help the education process, while others, like Mad Greens and Fresh to Order, have even installed kiosks to teach in-store customers.

Aside from education, there are a number of things quick-serve operators can do, experts say, to help customers eat healthier and, in turn, help the industry earn a more positive reputation.

Marion Nestle, one of the voices who has been critical of the quick-service industry the last several years, is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Why Calories Count and Food Politics. She writes in an e-mail that there are a few simple steps fast-food companies can take to move in the right nutritional direction and help shed some of the negative criticism.

One thing they should do, she writes, is “make healthy kids’ meals the default. Kids’ meals should be healthy. Parents can order junk food if they want to but have to ask for it.” This is something quick-serve companies have done in spades in the last year. From McDonald’s to Arby’s to Chick-fil-A, major concepts have added fruit as a default side item to kids’ meals and established juice, milk, and water as the sole beverage options. Many other brands, however, have yet to follow suit.

Another thing companies should do, Nestle writes, is “give a price break to people who order smaller portions. This doesn’t have to be proportional. How about a 30 percent price break for a half portion? Applebee’s already does this, but only for salads.”

Portion size and pricing are indeed two components of the quick-serve industry that could use some tweaking, many experts interviewed for this story say. David Rutkauskas, founder and CEO of Beautiful Brands International (bbi), says he believes the ballooning portion sizes in the quick-serve industry, which were well documented in the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” helped in part to skew customers’ understandings of balanced diets. And while a simple Big Mac does not throw an entire day’s caloric intake off balance, he says, large portions of everything else that come with the meal can.

“It’s when you add a large this and an extra-large that and all of these things, that’s where the consumer probably makes some mistakes,” Rutkauskas says.

Along with offering smaller portions for a lower price point, quick serves might also consider pricing healthier options more strategically, says David Morris, a foodservice consultant for consumer market research firm Packaged Facts. He says most consumers view healthful items as being more expensive and that quick serves can help them make healthier dining decisions by including multiple pricing tiers, each of which includes healthful options.

“The education there is really for the industry to be able to meet the consumer by offering and marketing healthful items that are going to be lower cost,” he says.

Morris also says companies should use governmental and organizational programs, like MyPlate, the National School Lunch Program, and the NRA’s Kids LiveWell, to help establish their commitment to health and get the word out about strides they’re taking in healthy eating.

“These educational platforms are what ultimately can bridge public policy with the need to make a profit,” Morris says. “With this … understanding that consumers need to eat more healthy, I think consumers are more apt to view food health as important now as they would five to seven years ago.”

And if consumers or critics don’t seem to be listening? Rutkauskas says quick serves should do what they do best: get in front of everyone’s eyeballs.

“They need to focus on it in the media, they need to focus on it in the social media world, they need to advertise it,” he says. “They need to bang the drum loudly, that ‘Hey, we have healthful products, here they are.’ Don’t just advertise the biggest, most fattening thing on the menu; advertise the healthy things, get the word out.”

Will it halt the obesity problem? Probably not. But at least it will give folks like John a better understanding of how they can take control of their personal health.