Health Is Good Business For Restaurant Chains

Growth at fast-food and sit-down restaurant chains is coming primarily from offering lower-calorie chow and drinks, according to a study released today by the Hudson Institute that’s partly funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Over five years, chains that increased the amount of lower-calorie options they served had better sales growth, larger increases in customer traffic, and stronger gains in total food and beverage servings than chains whose servings of lower-calorie options declined,” according to a press release this morning. 

A live-streaming of the formal release of the report -- “Lower-Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business“ –- can been seen here from noon to 1:30 p.m. EST today. It analyzes trends at 21 of the nation’s largest restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse.

“The bottom line is, if restaurants don’t get more aggressive behind these low-calorie products, they’re leaving sales on the table,” Henry Cardello, director of the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative and lead author of the report, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon. “It’s a business imperative.”

Lower-calorie servings are defined as sandwiches and entrees containing 500 or fewer calories, beverages with 50 or fewer calories per eight ounces and side dishes, appetizers and desserts with 150 or fewer calories, Jargon reports.

Federal regulations requiring operators of restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calorie counts by early next year have no doubt put pressure on the industry to come up with the healthier fare but “many operators are finding that cutting calories, sodium, sugar and fat pays off,” Stephanie Strom writes in the New York Times.

Executives at several chains indicate they are just giving customers what they want. 

“When the public starts saying it wants healthier options -- and we are hearing that -- we have an obligation to help show you what that means in our restaurant and give you choices to help you achieve that,” Pita Pit USA CEO Jack Riggs tells Strom.

“There’s also been a lot of finger-pointing at the industry by the media and others, including customers, that is spurring the movement,” registered dietitian Anita Jones-Mueller, president and founder of Healthy Dining Finder, tells Strom.

The Hudson Institute describes itself as a nonpartisan policy research organization dedicated to innovative research and analysis. The mission of Its Obesity Solutions Initiative is to bring about practical, market-oriented solutions to the world’s overweight and obesity epidemic. 

This is all on the heels of a report published in JAMA Internal Medicine that Baby Boomers, despite all the stories that would have us believe they are exercising compulsively and eating healthily in a last rebellious refusal to act their old age –- are actually in worse condition than the generation that preceded them.

Examining data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, West Virginia physician Dana E. King finds that while fewer Boomers smoke, have emphysema or get heart attacks, conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are on the rise.

“Only 13% of people said they were in excellent health compared with 33% a generation ago, and twice as many said they were in poor health,” King tells NPR’s Rob Stein. “And that’s by their own admission.”

King, who is among those troubled by the implications for health care costs as Boomers get ever older, traces the problems to more fat and less exercise. 

Meanwhile, Pizza Hut on Tuesday offered free mini Big Pizza Sliders pies in pepperoni and cheese varieties for carry-out or dine-in at participating locations in “one of the largest product giveaways in the company’s history,” Ron Ruggless reports in Nation’s Restaurant News.

Normally, the new “mega mini pizzas” –- reportedly 3.5 inches in diameter -- come nine to a box for $10, or three for $5, and customers can choose up to three toppings on each, according to a press release from Pizza Hut. A tomato- topped pie contains 230 calories; add beef, pork and Italian sausages and you’re up to 350.

The Los Angeles Times’ Tiffany Hsu reported on the Sliders, as well as McDonald’s short-term Fish McBites promotion for the Lenten repast season, on Monday.

“Pressure from the nutritional disclosure legislation has prompted the food-service industry to reduce calorie counts in meals,” Technomic EVP Darren Tristano says in a statement quoted by Tsu. “As a result, Americans are now more inclined to ‘graze’ throughout the day, seeking snacks that provide fuel between traditional meal parts.” 

Grazing (from the Middle English grasen, from Old English grasian, from græs grass, according to Merriam-Webster, and first used before the 12th century,) is a practice popularized by domesticated herbivores and adapted by homo sapiens sometime in the late 20th century. But with cows now munching on “taco shells, gummy worms and fruit loops,” as Andrew Moran reports on Examiner.com, how long will it be before they’re lining up at the trough for a mash of pepperoni, anchovies and mushroom Big Pizza Sliders?

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1 comment about "Health Is Good Business For Restaurant Chains".
  1. Robert Wheatley from Emergent Communications, Inc. , February 7, 2013 at 9:33 a.m.
    The biggest challenge in QSR and related segments will be their ability to more fully embrace and connect with the sea-change in consumer behavior on healthy choice. Not enough to message this, but also to match brand behavior and voice as a relevant partner in the consumer's move to make symbolic choices of what they believe to be good for you. Will keep us busy.