With obesity, diabetes and other diet-related maladies on the rise in the United States, are healthy choices available when eating out? In an interview study of top executives at major U.S. restaurant chains, researchers found that the message is mixed.
Growing sales and increasing profits led the list of factors that drive menu selection, although many respondents also expressed interest in providing low-fat, low calorie foods and fresh fruits and vegetables on their menus. The study, reported in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sought to understand how restaurant chains make decisions about their menus and the challenges surrounding offering healthier options on their menus.
The Healthy Menu Study used in-depth structured interviews with 41 senior menu development and marketing executives at leading casual dining and fast-food restaurant chains to learn about current practices and in particular, barriers to offering more fresh produce. It was initiated by the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), a non-profit educational foundation that aims to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and to foster a healthy food environment. Interviews were conducted by Technomic, an established foodservice research firm with access to executives at major restaurant chains.
The restaurant chains were selected based on industry leadership position, strong growth history or trends, and diverse menu categories. Efforts were made to recruit executives from companies with different sales volumes (<$200M, $200M-$999M and >$1B) and different types of service (Fast Food/Quick Service and Full-Service). The final count of 41 interviewees came from 28 chains and represented 28% of sales from all U.S. chains with over $50 million in annual revenue. Multiple interviews were conducted within some chains to gain a more complete picture when responsibilities, such as menu planning and marketing, were often segmented.
For the majority of those interviewed, the most important issues are growing sales and increasing profits (mentioned by 25 respondents from 15 chains). About half as many operators are concerned about food safety, meeting customer demand and labor issues. Health and nutrition were mentioned by only nine respondents and social responsibility by three. The majority of chains interviewed will not add new items to their menus unless they are confident that their customer base will accept them and that the items will contribute to sales and profit growth. Limited service chains (fast food) indicated that their consumers wanted menu changes more often than did full service restaurant respondents.
Writing in the article, Dr. Karen Glanz states, "It is not surprising that restaurant chains are committed to serving healthier foods only if they generate profit through high sales or other benefits to the restaurant...Many companies are reluctant to increase healthy food choices on menus due to perceptions of low consumer demand, inconsistent quality and availability of produce, high spoilage, increased storage needs, and complexity of preparation. Underlying all of these is a general belief that such products have not generated profits for their business and their competitors."