High hopes of helping Americans become thinner and healthier through new menu options came up against the hard reality of consumer preferences as foodservice experts dissected the challenges of feeding a nation in the grips of an obesity epidemic.
"The fact is, if Americans wanted tofu, McDonald's could provide the best tasting, most convenient, most affordable freshest tofu there is," said Cathy Kapica, director of global nutrition for the restaurant chain. "The problem is, Americans don't want tofu."
She made her comments here at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting.
The core of the problem facing restaurants in an age of flashy new food pyramids and best-selling diet books is two-fold - people who dine out want to splurge, and the notion of a ‘healthy indulgence' still represents an oxymoron that few can get past.
"There is so much subjectivity about the definition of healthy that it's almost lost its meaning," Kapica said. "(At McDonald's), we don't even use the word 'healthy' anymore because our consumer research shows people don't understand it and it's actually a turn off when it comes to food items."
Yum! Brands Inc., whose chains include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and others, has made a number of attempts to introduce "healthy" items, but those efforts have fizzled rather than sizzled, said Marilyn Schorin, chief nutrition and regulatory officer for the company.
"Taco Bell had a major effort a few years ago called Border Lights. They had lean beef and changed almost all of their sauces and even had the endorsement of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It was an absolute disaster," she said, and the company abandoned the effort as sales dropped dramatically.
"At the same time, Pizza Hut introduced double-stuffed crust pizza and also put in a hefty marketing campaign, and sales skyrocketed," she said. "So you see the challenge. It's enormous."
The issue for operators isn't whether you're offering healthier items but how many are being sold, Schorin said, because items that don't sell take up space, cut into revenue and slow down the "fast" of fast food.
"This isn't the rosy picture, but these are the practical challenges we're facing," she said.
The bottom line among customers is that "taste reigns supreme, whereas nutrition varies between consumers," Schorin said.
The IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo, running now through July 20, is the world's single largest annual scientific meeting and technical exposition of its kind. Rated among the largest shows in America*, the meeting delivers comprehensive, cutting-edge research and opinion from food science-, technology-, marketing- and business-leaders.