Hey, Activists: Fast Food Can Change Without You

A new report shows that the shift to serving low-calorie dishes is good for business. But does that absolve the industry from criticism?

Will Big Food transition to serving healtheir food if it's good for the bottom line? (Photo: Mike Saechung/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Finally, an argument against building a business around serving high-calorie food that the fast-food and chain-restaurant industries should understand: It’s bad for the bottom line.

That’s the gist of a new report, Lower-Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business, published by the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Center. The Center looked at calorie counts of menu items and sales numbers over a five-year period, from 2006 to 2011, and analyzed “whether or not growing sales of lower-calorie menu items in 21 national restaurant chains, accounting for half of the top 100 chain sales, resulted in superior business performance.” The restaurant chains analyzed include the likes of Wendy’s, KFC, Chili’s, Red Lobster and Taco Bell.

The verdict offered by the Institute’s report, directed by former food-industry executive and Hudson Senior Fellow Hank Cardello, is a resounding yes. To whit: “Between 2006 and 2011 lower-calorie foods and beverages were the key growth engine for the restaurants studied.” The report shows that restaurants that offered more low-calorie options saw a 10 percent increase in total sales, while chains that decreased low-calorie servings saw a decline in sales, 3.8 percent, between 2006 and 2011. Additionally, the percentage of French fry orders as a share of total food has reduced from 24.8 percent in 2006 to 24.1 percent in 2011, and low-calorie beverages are selling better, up to 34.1 percent of total beverage sales from 32.4 percent in 2006.

All good news, right? Well, maybe it’s not quite as bright and shiny of a morning for fast food as the Institute describes. The bar for “lower-calorie” is set at 500 for “center of the plate” items such as sandwiches, entrees and salads. That’s not a wholly unreasonable line to draw, but in focusing on just one nutritional statistic, these chain restaurants can be cast in a healthier light without having to account for other issues, such as the astronomical sodium content of many chain and fast-food restaurant items.

Take KFC’s Double Down—a cheese-and-bacon sandwich that swaps out fried chicken for bread, in case you forgot—as an example. The gluttonous dish, which the Colonel debuted in 2010, placing it in the period of time examined in the study, doesn’t quite qualify as low-calorie according to Hudson’s definition. The aberration of a sandwich is a mere 40 calories over the benchmark, but contains 1,380 mg of sodium. The Centers for Disease Control considers 1,500 mg of sodium per day to be adequate intake; Americans aged two and up consume 3,436 mg each day.

Oh, but what of the “healthier” Double Down, made with KFC’s grilled chicken rather than the fried? It hits the low-calorie mark, containing 460 calories—and more sodium than the fried version, 1,430 mg.

In addition to the methodology, the source of the report gives us pause too. Cardello made the switch to public-health advocacy, with a focus on childhood obesity issues, after a long career in the food industry. His resume includes stints as the president of Sunkist Soft Drinks, vice president of marketing for Canada Dry, director of marketing for Coca-Cola, and brand manager for General Mills. His work at the Hudson Institute (which considers itself nonpartisan, but The New York Times, amongst others, aligns it with the conservative end of the political spectrum) and as an opinion writer for The Atlantic, Newsweek and elsewhere is pro-business to a fault. Corporations, especially large, publicly traded ones, have a responsibility to make sound economic decisions, sure, but Cardello is dismissive of Big Food’s activist opponents in a way that borders on condescending.

In a story titled “How Everybody Can Win the War Against Big Food,” which ran on Forbes.com last October, Cardello moves from seeming to call for collaboration to essentially telling activists to chill and let the corporations come to the realization that providing healthier products is good for business (the story is rather like an op-ed-page version of the Hudson report). He suggests that, in order for the industry to find a balance between returns and the well-being of its customers, “First, activists and the industry need to change the rules of engagement. When hardcore activists begin to oppose an industry, industry executives become defensive and competitive. Under attack, they grow even more opposed to change and dig in and fortify their positions. Message to activists: Pursuing harsh regulations and litigation only prolongs the time it takes to reach a solution.”

What does the industry, on the other hand, need to do to change the rules of engagement? Cardello, speaking the language of the boardroom, asks that the corporations see demands for healthier foods “as an incredible new profit opportunity.”

A long-term, tenable means of turning fast-food and chain restaurants into businesses that actually improve the state of public health will involve activists and industry alike, but studies and opinion pieces geared at pushing one party aside—the one with far less political and financial power—are more akin to lobbying than advocacy. And until that magical, mystical day Cardello speaks of, when the corporations decide to make money off of feeding people healthy food instead of junk, we can depend on the work of activists like Eric Schlosser and Morgan Spurlock to push the issue—and to effect real change.

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