Healthy fast food brings fat profits


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It’s been nearly 15 years since Jared Fogle famously lost a couple hundred pounds on a diet of Subway sandwiches, introducing us all to the improbable notion that fast food could be good for you.

Yet there he was, 6’2’’ and a trim 200 pounds. It seemed almost preposterous that an American fast food eatery had helped Jared regain his health. But his story was irresistible: His weight had soared to more than 400 pounds — he blamed junk food, soda, drive-thru burgers and all-you-can eat Chinese buffets — but a regimen of Subway sandwiches and brisk walks transformed his physique.

Turns out a well-chosen Subway sandwich — lots of veggies, a lean meat, skip the high-fat mayonnaise-based dressings — is a culinary saint when compared to, say, a Whopper or a Big Mac. And sure, you can still indulge in a meaty, cheesy, sauce-laden Subway sandwich. But as it happens, virtuous fast food is also good for profits. Subway saw its profits climb to $11.5 billion in 2011 from around $3 billion in 1998, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, and Fogle is credited with one-third to one-half of Subway’s growth in the past 15 years.

And the rest of the industry took notice.

In recent years, meal options for diners seeking a healthy or, at least, a less-injurious fast-food meal have improved, fueled by consumer demand for tastier, healthier and, increasingly, sustainable and humanely raised food. This demand has driven a trend that began more than a decade ago with low-fat salad dressings alongside the creamy ranch, yogurt parfaits on the menu board with ice cream sundaes, and bottled water side-by-side with soda. But it has expanded to include a new crop of eateries where “healthy” is an integral part of the brand.

Restaurants such as Panera Bread, with its soups and sandwiches on artisan breads; up-and-comer Veggie Grill, with its plant-based menu and restaurants in California, Oregon and Washington; and the self-dubbed “health casual” Freshii, now in eight countries including the U.S., have carved a foothold in the fast food landscape, capturing loyal customers and, at times, creating near-cult followings.

And then there’s Chipotle Mexican Grill, the current darling amongst fast-food foodies, vegetarians, and those who seek out “ethical” food. In 1993, there were 16 Chipotles, all of them in Colorado. Now there are 1,500 across the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany and elsewhere. Diners order custom-made burritos, salads and burrito bowls at the counter and options include white or brown rice, vegetarian beans and grilled vegetables, along with pork, chicken, beef, salsas, cheese and guacamole. All are served under a banner of Chipotle’s  “Food with Integrity” mission statement and its efforts to serve naturally raised meats, hormone-free dairy, and organic produce whenever possible. By 2012, the company had a net income of $278 million and employed more than 37,000 people.

Meanwhile, traditional fast food behemoth McDonald’s has diversified its menu, adding items like grilled chicken Snack Wraps, blueberry pomegranate smoothies, oatmeal, and apple slices to its mix of bacon-draped burgers, shakes and fried chicken sandwiches. And Burger King, home of the 1,020-calorie Triple Whopper, also offers a MorningStar Veggie Burger and just recently unveiled Satisfries, a lower fat, lower calorie take on this fast-food standby.

That these global granddaddies of fast food are catering to a demand for healthier items is an indicator that what may have started as a trend on the U.S. coasts has taken hold across the mainstream.

The incentive for fast-food outlets like McDonald’s and “quick casual” restaurants like Panera to offer healthier food is twofold: To capture diners who are seeking healthier, higher-quality fare, and to combat the negative public perception that fast food corporations are at least partially responsible for the global obesity epidemic.

Also driving the trend is increasing public awareness and interest in where food comes from, how it’s prepared, and its nutritional content, says Brendan Walsh, Dean of Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) of Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the most influential culinary colleges in the world. People are getting closer to their food, cooking more and thinking more about what they put in their bodies and while the change is slow in coming, he says, it’s gathering momentum as the detrimental results of poor diet become impossible to ignore.

Worldwide, overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk of death, according to the World Health Organization, and about 2.8 million adults die each year as a result. In addition, 44 percent of the diabetes burden, 23 percent of ischemic heart disease and between 7 and 41 percent of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.

In the U.S., that translates to about a third of adults, says the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

“As people become knowledgeable about the importance of the food they eat, of the healing properties of food, that eating the right things make you feel better, that will drive demand,” Walsh says. He sees it in the chefs and other professionals the CIA trains — Chipotle Mexican Grill founder Steve Ells attended the CIA — and he points to a significant cause for optimism; childhood obesity rates in particular are trending downward. According to the CDC, from 2003 through 2010, childhood obesity decreased from 15.21 percent to 14.94 percent.

Overall, fast food is a $660 billion-per-year industry, employing 1 in 10 American workers, according to Forbes. And it’s an industry besieged with challenges. The customer base has come to expect very, very low prices — dollar menus brought diners in, especially during the recent recession, and the expectation of a 99-cent hamburger or order of chicken nuggets has proved a difficult habit to break. Restaurants such as Wendy’s have struggled to maintain profits.

But while the diner seeking a quick, inexpensive and satisfying meal remains the mainstay for many fast-food outlets and price is a leading consideration when consumers decide where to eat, a recent study by the Natural Marketing Institute found that 17 percent of consumers are committed to eating healthier foods and are willing to pay more for them.

At the same time, 14 percent want to eat better but remain “price sensitive,” and another 21 percent aspire to make healthier choices. Together, that translates to 52 percent of restaurant customers with a strong-to-moderate desire for a healthier fast-food meal, and is why, for example, Dunkin’ Donuts has added the Egg White Veggie Flatbread sandwich, with or without turkey sausage, to a menu that includes the far more decadent Glazed Donut Breakfast Sandwich, a small and sugar-sticky tower of fried egg and bacon served on a donut.

“As people change, the big corporations will follow,” Walsh says. “As we create the niche, it becomes important, and people shift the corporations. They see the shift, they see the research, and to stay relevant they have to change.”

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