The Battle Between Taste And Health Rages On

On back-to-back days in USA Today, Bruce Horovitz has informed us of the latest way food marketers are going for the jugular — by which we mean, potentially clogging it up — with indulgences that may be hard to resist.

Carl’s Jr. is testing mashed potatoes on top of chicken (The Big Chicken Masher, 900 calories, 47 grams of fat) or a hamburger (The Burger Masher ThickBurger, 790 calories, 42 grams of fat) between two buns. And ChocoChicken, a new chain-in-the-making out of Los Angeles, is offering free-range chicken “coated with a special cooking chocolate made from bittersweet cocoa, and fries up a shade of chocolate brown,” Horovitz writes. For dessert, can we interest you in Electric Chocolate S'mores?

“All of the ingredients are secret,” says co-founder Adam Fleischman. “All I can say is that the marinating, coating, seasoning and frying process all contain some element of chocolate.”

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal, Julie Jargon informs us that some marketers and fast food chains are surreptitiously making their offerings healthier because if consumers knew what they were doing, they’d go elsewhere for their salt, fat and sugar.

“McDonald's, Boston Market, Kraft Are Under Pressure to Change Recipes, but Consumers Don't Always Like Them,” the subhed reads.

“When you tell people something's healthy, they think it doesn't taste good,” Sara Bittorf, chief brand officer of Boston Market, tells Jargon. That’s why the chain “didn't advertise their efforts in the fourth quarter of last year to cut sodium in mashed potatoes, stuffing and other menu items at its 460 outlets until February — after the items appeared to have been accepted by consumers.”

It’s sometimes called “stealth health,” Jargon writes, and it’s the approach General Mills took in cutting the sodium content by 10% to 50% in 27 varieties of Hamburger Helper over the past six years, according to Maha Tahiri, the company's chief health and wellness officer.

“Consumers say they want healthier products, but they don't want to compromise on taste,” Tahiri tells Jargon. “It takes multiple months, if not years, to get the right equation between taste and health.”

Back to those mashed potatoes on a bun that nobody was clamoring for, last we checked, but some see as an indication that American ingenuity is again on the rise. 

“Every couple of days, we complain that our American fast food branches are so boring. While Wendy’s Japan gets lobster and caviar burgers, we’re stuck with sriracha everything,” Dominique Zamora wrote on Food Beastie last week, scooping the fast-food press and speaking on behalf of starving journalism student foodies everywhere. “Well, even though these mashed potato burgers from Carl’s Jr. aren’t exactly caviar, they’re still about a million steps in the right direction. Guys. It’s happening.”

Horovitz writes: “‘It's an indulgent, decadent way to eat a burger or chicken sandwich,’” understates Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl's and Hardee's. “We're always trying to think of innovative things to put on a burger that others haven't done,” he says. 

Other countervailing trends are pushing against our baser instincts for Salt Sugar Fat, however. The government, for one, is tapping into its marketing savvy with a Healthy Eating and Lifestyle Resource Center that was developed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EatingWell magazine. 

“The resource center features lower-sodium, heart-healthy recipes and family-friendly meal plans, with an emphasis on managing sodium intake, a major contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease,” according to a press release

“This resource helps people see that it’s not about giving up the food you love, but choosing lower sodium options that taste great,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. 

There are numerous low–fat recipes for mashed potatoes of several varieties, for example, but none of them appear to come between a bun.

And tomorrow, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation accelerates its initiative to “build a Culture of Health in America” when it kicks off a 2-1/2 day conference on the heels of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“Spotlight: Health will bring together world leaders, corporate executives, innovators, entrepreneurs, policy experts, influential media, philanthropists and thought leaders from a broad range of sectors to discuss the key issues of our time as they relate to medicine, population health, and the relationship between health and other disciplines,’ Robin Hogan writes on the RWJF blog. 

Focusing on “what the state of health might look like” in 10 years, “it will explore new frontiers.” There will be a live stream on YouTube; you can also follow the Twitter hashtag #AspenIdeas. 

Alas, we’re betting mashed potatoes on a bun and chocolate-covered chicken will not be among the “decadent” offerings at Plato’s.

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