After a decades-long fast-food binge, the notion of watching what you eat seems to be hitting more Americans - but certainly not all - as they approach the counter of their favourite "quick-service" outlet, experts say.
Changing tastes, along with some regulatory prodding, means the nation's fast-food industry is also getting the message.
Citywide bans on tasty but heart-clogging trans-fat cooking oils, legal moves to mandate calorie counts on menus, and even an effort to outlaw new fast-food franchises in obesity-plagued south Los Angeles have grabbed headlines this year.
One industry representative believes fast-food businesses are responding to consumers' changing tastes and health concerns and the obesity epidemic.
Fast food places doing good job
"I think that quick-service restaurants have done a great job of offering and highlighting healthier items," said Sheila Weiss, a registered dietician and director of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association, which describes itself as the leading business association for the restaurant industry.
"A lot of their campaigns recently have focused on the elimination of trans fat oils, on offering more entree salads and better options for side dishes like fruits and low-fat skim milk."
Last week, Burger King pledged to offer kids healthier food options, such as apples cut to resemble French fries and a kids' meal with low-fat, flame-broiled chicken tenders, unsweetened applesauce and low-fat milk.
McDonald's already offers children apple slices in a low-fat caramel dip, while adults can snack on the chain's Paul Newman salads or fruit parfaits.
Wendy's is offering up salads, or yogurt laden with granola and mandarin oranges.
Fast-food menus changing
One independent nutritionist agreed that, 67 years after the first McDonald's opened in San Bernardino, California, fast-food menus may be finally changing for the better.
It's been tried before, but this time the changes might stick, said David Grotto, a Chicago dietician and national spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
"We have seen healthier offerings now because there is a market for it," Grotto said. "If we think back to McDonald's, when they first offered the McLean burger, that was a disaster. But there wasn't a market for it then people were not going to burger joints to get healthy, they just wanted a good burger."
Times and trends have changed, Grotto said. "What is happening now is that you are starting to see Paul Newman salads, apple dippers, etcetera, and they are selling because there is a market for it," he said.
That doesn't mean fast-food menus are necessarily causing Americans to eat better, however. The healthier options that are offered at quick-serve restaurants are for a very specific demographic," Grotto contended.
Hard to change mindset
"They walk into the restaurant already knowing that they are going to make a healthier choice. On the other hand, if you go into a burger joint and you have your mind set on a burger, you are not going to get the Paul Newman salad."
For similar reasons, Grotto is dubious that proposals to mandate calorie counts on fast-food menus will get people eating healthier diets. One such law proposed for New York City was shot down by a judge last week.
"I firmly believe that the consumer who goes in and wants the burger already knows that it may not be the healthiest thing in the world," Grotto said. "So beating him over the head about calories isn't necessarily going to change things."
Weiss agreed, adding that information on the calorie content of fast foods is already offered to consumers in other ways, such as brochures, tray liners and Web sites. And she wonders whether the average consumer can easily interpret calorie counts, anyway.
Misunderstanding over calories
When the International Food Information Council asked people how many calories they needed per day to maintain their weight, only 12 percent of respondents were able to give the correct answer," Weiss said. "That shows that people do not understand the context of calories in their diet and lifestyle."
According to Weiss, what consumers really want is choice.
"This is not a charity, it is a business," she said. "Restaurants are providing foods that their customers want and are going to eat."
For some of today's customers, that now means healthier foods, Weiss said, and "if people didn't want them and they weren't selling, they wouldn't stay on the menu."
Weiss said her association supports recent moves in New York City, Seattle and elsewhere to limit trans fat cooking oils in restaurant fare. But she worries that deadlines for the changeover are being set too tightly to allow businesses to find reliable substitutes in time.
Fast food places not healthy yet
Grotto, author of the forthcoming book 101 Foods That Can Change Your Life, cautioned that McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food retailers haven't turned into health food havens quite yet.
"The bread-and-butter of the quick-service industry is not healthy foods," he said. "It's still very much driven by what the consumer wants," and for most consumers, that's high-calorie, fatty fare, he said.
So, what efforts can work to change people's dining preferences for the better?
"I'm old school on this," Grotto said. "I think that starts in the home." When parents model good nutrition and exercise, healthier kids will follow, he said, and those children typically grow into health-conscious adults.
"If we are ever to tackle this huge problem of obesity, it's not about any one smoking gun," Grotto said. "Everybody has got to play a role in turning this around." – (E.J. Mundell, HealthDay)
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