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Fast Food: Does Healthy Sell?

Salad sales are strong, but we still love our burgers
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Exclusive Feature

Sure, you can order salads and even fresh fruit in fast-food restaurants these days. But with the intoxicating smell of fries wafting through the air, it's not easy to opt for a more nutritious side dish.

Though all the major fast-food chains have added healthy options to their menus -- and some of these items are selling well -- many Americans are reluctant to forgo their beloved burgers and fries.

During restaurants' peak summer season this past year, the top picks were burgers, fries, and pizza, all of which have topped the list for the past 10 years, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

Still, customer's interest in healthier food seems to be growing. Some 78% of restaurants in the "quick-service" category, which includes fast food, are seeing more orders for entrée salads, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), an industry group. In fact, entrée salads have shown the biggest increase of all menu items, in both quick-service and sit-down restaurants, the NRA says.

Bottled water and poultry items are doing well, too. And consumer interest in more nutritious menu choices is expected to keep increasing this year, according to the NRA's 2005 projections.

All this is important because Americans get about one-third of their calories at restaurants and other food-service establishments, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group. So our restaurant choices have a big impact on our overall diets.

Healthier Trend

Experts say several factors are helping to drive the trend toward more healthy offerings at fast-food restaurants.

With obesity reaching near-epidemic levels in the United States, corporations and the media are paying more attention to health, nutrition, and anti-obesity efforts. There have even been a couple of high-profile (if unsuccessful) lawsuits filed against fast-food corporations claiming the restaurants contributed to obesity.

Further, the popularity of the so-called "fast-casual" restaurant (places like Panera, Chipotle, and Au Bon Pain) has inspired fast-food operators to expand their "premium" menu items, such as the popular entrée salads, according to the NPD Group.

McDonald's, with 13,000 franchises feeding 23 million people each day, is among the many fast-food chains now offering premium salads.

"We have sold 300 million salads in the U.S., equaling 600 million vegetable servings," says Cathy Kapica, PhD, RD, global director of nutrition for McDonald's.

Low-fat milk bottled in fun, easy-to-handle "chugs" has also been a home run for McDonald's. Sales have tripled since the introduction of the containers last year, Kapica said.

"Making food fun and nutritious is the key" says Kapica. She noted that when the restaurant tried offering carrot and celery sticks in its child-friendly Happy Meals, "they bombed."

Then McDonald's began offering Apple Dippers, sliced apples that children can dip into a container of caramel sauce. "Once we found a fruit that kids love, gave them the dipping experience that simulates French fries in ketchup, we made it easy for them to choose apples over fries," Kapica says.

Another nutrition success story is Subway, the quick-service sandwich shop. Former college student Jared Fogle became the face of Subway after "right-sizing" himself with the help of the chain's low-fat subs.

In the past four years, since Fogle has been doing commercials for Subway, annual sales in the United States have grown from $3.8 billion to $6.2 billion, says Subway spokesman Kevin Kane. And Fogle's low-fat favorite, turkey, is the leading seller at the fast-growing Subway chain.

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