Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Junk Food

Healthy-eating campaigns at fast-food restaurants are fast fizzling, company executives say.

Consumers eating out for the night aren’t interested in healthy-eating options and aren’t reading nutritional information even when it’s printed on napkins or put on tray liners in front of them, the executives say.

“This isn’t a rosy picture,” said Marilyn Schorin, chief nutritional officer for Yum! Brands, whose chains include Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

Schorin recalled that Taco Bell changed its sauces and offered an eight-item lean-beef alternative called Border Lights that had half the fat and 20 percent less calories than traditional offerings of tacos and tortillas. The new offerings even won praise from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime scold of the excess of artery-clogging food sold at fast-food restaurants.

“It was a disaster,” Schorin told the annual convention of the Institute of Food Technologists. She noted that at the same time Pizza Hut introduced a double-stuffed-crust pizza, and sales of that item soared. The company got the message and Taco Bell scrapped Border Lights.

Schorin said the fast-food industry is successful because Americans go out to eat indulgent foods that they don’t cook at home, and they don’t expect to find the healthy options at quick-service take-away outlets that are available at upscale restaurants.

Cathy Kapica, director of global nutrition for McDonald’s, said her company has stopped using the word “healthy” because the word has lost all meaning in a society addicted to fad diets. She said McDonald’s customer research found that the word “healthy” is a turnoff when customers see it on a menu.

“If Americans wanted tofu, McDonald’s could provide the best-tasting, most convenient, most affordable, freshest tofu there is,” she said. “The problem is, Americans don’t want tofu.”

Kapica said McDonald’s is offering fruit alternatives on its menu and is campaigning for Americans to do more exercise to work off the calories.

In recent years, the fast-food and restaurant industry has come under attack from nutritionists, who contend they are contributing to America’s obesity problem through menus of fatty fried foods.

Mary Jo Feeney, a marketing consultant from Los Altos, Calif., said the food industry could help Americans lose weight by substituting high-calorie items with low-calorie alternatives like portobello mushrooms instead of meat and by using dried plums instead of sugar in confectionery items.

She said that cutting 100 calories from the daily food intake of the American diet would stop most weight gain. “By helping consumers achieve a small daily decrease in caloric intake, the food-service industry could have an enormous public-health impact,” she said.

But Schorin said customers are sensitive to changes in the taste of their food, and in the fast-food industry “taste reigns supreme.”

Healthier options are already available at many chains.

Applebee’s offers Weight Watchers menu items labeled with the diet program’s point values, and T.G.I. Friday’s features a low-carb, Atkins-approved menu. Boston Market is promoting a “Wellness guide” suggesting that customers who want low-fat options could pair its Sweet Garlic Rotisserie Chicken with a side of Garlic Dill New Potatoes.

(Contact Lance Gay at gayl(at)