Fast Food Restaurants Getting Healthier

One of the reasons I’m often critical of government policies that attempt to force healthy eating on the public (say through ingredient bans or fat taxes) is that I have a different view of “Big Food” than many foodies.  Big Food is often portrayed as powerful, nefarious entity preying on helpless consumers.  I’m more apt to seeing fast food restaurants as responding to consumer demand for convenient, inexpensive, quick food.  They offer burgers and fries because this is what consumers are willing to pay for. 

However much we may want McDonald’s et al. to offer healthier alternatives, at the end of the day they must make enough money to stay afloat.  If more salads are offered than consumers want or are willing to buy, that’s a recipe for disaster.  As one organic farmer put it: the first rule of sustainability is that you have to make enough money this year to do it all over again next year.  I have little doubt that the McDonalds of the world would offer a lot more salads if they thought they could make money doing it. 

Against this backdrop, I noticed a recent study by the Hudson Institute that examined the offerings of fast-food restaurants over the past five years (it was covered by the WSJ here).  Here’s what the study found:

“between 2006 and 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages were the growth engine for the restaurants studied. In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains evaluated, lower-calorie foods and beverages outperformed those that were not lower-calorie. In addition, chains that increased their servings of lower-calorie items saw positive returns as a result. These chains generated:

  • a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales, compared with a 5.5 percent decline among chains selling fewer lower-calorie servings;
  • a 10.9 percent growth in customer traffic, compared with a 14.7 percent decline; and
  • an 8.9 percent increase in total food and beverage servings, compared with a 16.3 percent decrease.”

The lesson is that you don’t always need government regulation.  The market will deliver healthy foods when the public decides that’s what they want.