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    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.

    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.