Notwithstanding the fact that many more “healthy” choices have been added to fast food menus, the median calorie content of fast food is the same today as it was 14 years ago, reports the study led by Katherine W. Bauer of Temple University’s Department of Public Health and Center for Obesity Research and Education. The study looked at changes in menu offerings at eight major chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen.
Between 1997 and 2010, the study found a 53 percent increase in the overall number of offerings — 679 to 1036 — across the restaurants. And while many of these are marketed as “healthy,” they aren’t any lower in calories. More to the point, I would argue, is that these “healthy” choices are often just as over-processed as any burger, fry or soda on the menu. Take the Grilled Chicken Fillet that McDonald’s uses in its entrée salads and wraps, for example. It’s prepared with liquid margarine, which is made up of hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, soy lecithin and artificial flavor, among nine other ingredients.
So-called “healthy” fast foods are a bit of a charade. First, they’re not all that healthy. Second, they’re just one of various vehicles used to broaden the customer base, giving more people more reason to stop by for a bite to eat. They’re concocted and sold by corporations that are by no means in the business of promoting healthy eating, but are rather in the business of selling greater volumes of food to a greater number of people year after year. In the past year and in the years ahead, in fact, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC will be among those digging into desserts for new growth opportunities.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune last year, McDonald’s “has embraced myriad strategies to keep sales growing, extending its restaurant hours and adding healthier items as well as upscale coffee drinks.” Now, the fast food giant is looking to become a “dessert destination” by expanding on its existing menu of apple pies and shakes. Taco Bell, likewise, is offering Mexican-style sweet treats, and KFC has seen promising sales from cookies baked on the premises.
One analyst told the Chicago Tribune that desserts have been a small business for McDonald’s, but “when you’re McDonald’s, you’ve got to look under every rock. They need to increase sales every month over month, quarter over quarter.” And they are probably very encouraged by research showing that consumers are willing to eat dessert at any time of the day. A marketing director with McDonald’s said the company already sells 20 percent of its pies at breakfast, and all the restaurants are selling desserts at lunch and as snacks throughout the day.
It is rather stunning that the eight fast food chains examined in the Temple University study added to their menus no fewer than 357 items to the existing 679 in 14 years. The median calorie content of these items may not have gone up, but the fact that there are that many more choices means that there are that many more processed calories on offer. And customers are thereby enticed — urged, you might say — to add ever more sides and drinks and desserts to their order. We have to own up to the choices we make, certainly, but it behooves us to know exactly what we’re up against.
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