Why Nutrition and Fast Food Rarely Mix

"I'm Lovin' It," from McDonald's. "Different is Good," from Arby's. "Think Outside the Box," from Taco Bell. "Have It Your Way," from Burger King. "Eat Fresh," Subway's current tagline.

Of all the above, only one quick-service marketing campaign--Subway's--even begins to tout the menu as healthful.

"They don't really try, except for Subway," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm. "Subway pushes the fresh, and for people, that is healthy."

The concept of fresh "is so overpowering that it offsets whatever the fresh item might be," Paul adds. "You load it up with mayo, but it's still fresh bread, meat, cheese."

Marketing menus as healthful doesn't work because health isn't a consideration when customers choose fast food. Rather, "easy" and "cheap" are the deciding factors, says Harry Balzer, vice president at The NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm. "That's why fast food is dominant," he says. "The payback is quick. They're faster and cheaper."



Balzer says there's another deciding factor: New. That may be why fried-chicken sandwiches are one of the industry's fastest-growing menu items. "It's a new way of eating fried chicken," Balzer adds.

New York City's proposed ban on trans-fatty foods at restaurants has brought the issue back to the spotlight. But the battle of fast-food versus nutrition has been waged for at least 20 years, with a number of famous casualties. Among them are salad bars. "There used to be a time when every restaurant except McDonald's had a salad bar," Balzer says. "Why did they pull them out? Were the crowds too great?"

Another example: McDonald's McLean Deluxe burger, introduced in 1991 and pulled from the menu in 1995 after lack of consumer interest. Burger King offers a veggie burger, "but sales have got to be less than two percent" of the menu mix, Paul says.

"The activists want chains (to add healthful foods) and the customers ignore it," says Paul.

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