• Thu, Mar 21 2013

Fast Food Companies Are Out To Manipulate You—By Adding “Healthy” Menu Options

fast food menus

I know, I know. That headline doesn’t make much sense. How can a company be manipulating consumers if they’re adding actually healthy options to their menus? But Joe Satran over at HuffPost Healthy Living makes a great case for why fast food companies definitely don’t have your best interests at heart.

I’ll break it down for you. Basically, several companies are adding healthy options to their menus: Burger King has added a turkey burger, McDonald’s is adding an egg-white version of the McMuffin, and even Cracker Barrel wants to get in the mix with a “Wholesome Fixins’” menu. Sounds good so far, right? That’s until you learn that market research continually finds that customers don’t and won’t order from these special healthy menus. Fast food executives are aware of that. Satran writes:

“…these chains are adding egg whites and ground turkey to their menus to make consumers think of their restaurants as healthy — or at least not gratuitously unhealthy — and, by extension, OK to visit. In other words, healthy menu items are marketing tools. Like any other new product introduction, they bring attention to the chain; unlike, say, Cool Ranch Doritos Tacos, they shift perception of the brand toward virtue. And rightly so: Burger King’s turkey burger weighs in at 530 calories, 15 percent fewer than a classic Whopper.”

So it’s all about the image, see? Companies know that, as the obesity epidemic grows, people are interested in finding alternatives to regular fast food, even though only a quarter of Americans say they ever order off of the healthy menu. Research also finds that, once people get in the door at fast food places, they’ll continue to order the ol’ burger and fries, even if they came in with the intention of getting a fruit and yogurt parfait or a salad. Interestingly, the fact that we tend to eat in groups also plays a part in motivating profits:

The impact of offering healthy dishes on fast food companies’ bottom line is also magnified by the fact that few people eat alone. If just one member of a dinner group was dieting, the lack of a low-calorie option at a given restaurant could be a dealbreaker for the others as well. Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, author of the forthcoming book Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, added that a so-called “veto vote” based on dietary concerns is disproportionately likely to come from the “nutritional gatekeeper” of a family, often a mother.

So if people know that a healthy option is available at McDonald’s or Burger King, they’re more likely to go there, even if once they’re actually there, they’ll probably still order a high-calorie option. Good for restaurants, bad for people.

I have to add that I don’t think it’s at all a bad thing that there will be healthier options available at these restaurants. It’s terrific, actually, and can potentially benefit both people who eat at fast food restaurants regularly as well as people who do occasionally. But I think it’s important to note, as Joe Satran has done, that these eateries aren’t actually becoming any healthier as a whole. Providing a few menu options to satisfy a trend isn’t creating actual change.

Photo: Flickr user Taberandrew

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