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Why Nutritionists Can’t Eat Fast-Food Profits

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Fast food restaurant sales are rising in large part due to bigger, juicier, prime beef burgers with delicious sounding names – not healthy options like salads and apple slices, experts say.

Despite campaigns launched in recent years by calorie-counting nutritionists, sales continue to rise at the major chains. Earlier today, Wendy’s reported strong fourth-quarter revenue growth of 5.6% to $615 million. The chain reported an increase in company-owned same-store sales of over 5%. CEO Emil Brolick said it had the strongest same-store sales growth since the second quarter of 2004 “primarily due to the introduction of our premium Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy cheeseburger line.” Last week, McDonald’s reported its sales are up 10% to $6.82 billion, crediting “core” staples like Big Macs and fries.

In fact, fast-food sales continue to grow even as the chains increase prices. McDonald’s raised menu prices 3% in 2011. At Wendy’s, the recently released Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy” burger costs $3.49 to $5.79 depending on the size, a 10 to 20 cent increase on previous Wendy’s burgers of that size. Wendy’s is selling more hamburgers, fries and salads than a year ago, says spokesman Denny Lynch.  But Morningstar analyst Joscelyn MacKay says “no-one purposefully goes to a fast-food restaurant because it’s the healthiest choice.”

Here are three reasons consumers are still asking, “Where’s the beef?”

Pictures of salads make a trip to McDonald’s guilt-free

McDonald’s has options, including pre-peeled, sliced “Apple Dippers” as an alternative to fries. But the latter still prove to be among the most popular items. Salads are a great marketing and publicity tool, experts say, but people want cheap food and they don’t want to leave hungry. Salads are designed to appeal to the conscience of parents– not children, says Fred Geyer, partner with marketing consultancy Prophet. The healthy offerings help encourage parents to bring their kids to McDonald’s and eat burgers and chicken nuggets. He says the parents, not the children, are more likely to end up eating salad.

Only one-in-six people pay attention to the calories on menus

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration followed in New York’s footsteps and introduced new rules that require restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to list calories on the menu. This was welcomed by nutritionists, but it may not have actually changed anyone’s eating habits. According to a study in the British Medical Journal, only one in six New Yorkers considered the calorie information before making their purchase. People in a hurry primarily make their decisions based on pictures of attractive-looking food, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Restaurants are serving up better quality beef

Cheeky British chef Jamie Oliver recently criticized fast-food restaurants for making burgers with beef trimmings treated in bacteria-killing ammonium hydroxide. McDonald’s and Burger King subsequently announced they were abandoning the practice. Both companies said in separate statements that the decision was designed to improve global beef raw material standards. Last September, Wendy’s also launched the “Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy” hamburger after Wendy’s late founder Dave Thomas. It has 100% North American “never frozen” prime beef, according to Wendy’s.

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    • grimace, you sound as bitter as your name. I’m sorry.
      I choose whether to drink alcohol or not just as i choose whether or not to literally eat crap or not. and that is what fast food. It is poison, just like sodas. I am with you on the pharma drugs. If you ate only fast food to survive, survival would be short.

    • I’m glad fast food and I don’t get along. It’s too greasy.

    • And everyone that commented on this article lamenting the horror of fast food and comparing it to cigs probably can’t get thru a day (or an afternoon) without guzzling a gallon of some alcoholic beverage, probably has a regular weed habit (hey man–it’s my alcohol!!) smokes the occasional cigar or cig, and is cramming their pie hole with antipsychotics or is deep into some other form of self-medication. So why don’t you all just shut up? Fast food is–at base–food which the body needs to survive. Cig’s, alcohol, weed, pills and corporate pharmaceuticals provide absolutely nothing in the form of sustenance. Got it? Let’s see: cymbalta, paxil, or a big mac? I’ll take the big mac please.

    • Studies I’ve read indicate that fat can be addictive and fast food restaurants are nothing more than a cheap “fat delivery system”. Nice gig they’ve got going. Much like the cigarette companies.

    • The article says ‘only 1 in 6 pay attention to calorie count’…that’s 16% of the customers. It’s a start; it’s better than the ‘none’ before the calorie postings were required. If we could reduce heart disease this year by 16%, the medical establishment would be very pleased.

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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