Why is it so hard to find a healthy meal in a restaurant? Because it's harder for the restaurant to make a buck on fruits and vegetables, and because healthy food isn't why we consumers dine out.
A new study involving thousands of chain restaurants shows menus are aimed at the bottom line, not your belt line.
Restaurants are trying to bring in more customers and make bigger profits. That conclusion might not be particularly surprising, considering that profits drive every business, but senior restaurant managers who participated in the study bluntly say pushing healthy food is not an option.
"If we put something on the menu and say it's healthy, it's the kiss of death," one executive told the researchers.
"Offering healthier menu items is like putting lipstick on a pig," another restaurant manager said. "People may go where healthier foods are advertised, but they usually wind up eating the same old stuff."
Researchers from several major universities and government agencies interviewed 41 senior "menu development and marketing executives" at some of the biggest chains in the country, both fast food and full service restaurants, and found what they had pretty much expected. Some 61 percent said profits drive menu selections, and only 21 percent said health and nutrition are important.
Healthy items, like fruits and vegetables, cost more, are harder to store, frequently spoil and lead to waste, and require special handling, the executives said. And they may take business away from more profitable items.
"We don't want to serve an item that's going to take dollars away from a more profitable item," one executive said.
All the participants were guaranteed anonymity, which partly accounts for the candor of the quotes. The restaurants include 12 fast food chains and 16 full-service chains with annual sales volumes ranging from $64 million to $24 billion. The number of restaurants in each chain ranged from 22 to 17,909.
"We're particularly interested in chain restaurants because that's such a growing segment of eating out," said social psychologist Karen Glanz of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, lead author of the study, which will be published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "Chains are becoming so dominant and they have a very broad effect on what's out there."
Responses quoted in the study reveal that most executives don't think many consumers are all that interested in healthier food, at least when they dine out, and the situation is not likely to change anytime soon.
Glanz and her colleagues, including researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of Michigan and others, think part of the solution might be more government intrusion into the restaurant business. If you can't make them sell healthier food, the study suggests, at least the government should require them to include information in their menus that would help consumers find the healthiest meals.
But quotes in the study indicate that many restaurant executives would fight that.
"Look what happened when (an unidentified chain) attempted to list the nutritional information," one executive said. "It backfired. Most restaurant customers' attitude is, 'When I go out to eat, I want what I want. Don't make me feel guilty when I'm eating dinner.'"