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.'"
Self-indulgence is at the heart of the issue, according to several of the executives. Glanz agrees, but she thinks that attitude may be outmoded.
"This has a historical backdrop," she said. "When people didn't eat out nearly as much as they do now, it was a special indulgence. When I was a kid in the '50s, going out really was a treat. We haven't caught up with the fact that eating out is often just a very common way of life, and it's where we get up to a third of our meals. We haven't changed our thinking. We still think of it as special."
Glanz would like to see a more active role by the government, possibly like the regulations governing labels on packaged food, but that doesn't always work either.
"Food manufacturers are pretty good at working around some of the rules," she admitted.
Just check your local supermarket for evidence of that. The items listed under ingredients on a loaf of bread, for example, are listed in descending order. The first identifies the main ingredient.
On my desk right now is a loaf of "Healthy Multi-Grain Bread," and the label says it's made with whole grains. Public health experts say that's best for us. But the first ingredient is enriched flour, which means the good stuff that occurs naturally in wheat has been processed out of the grains and other stuff has been pumped in. We're left to guess just how much of a slice of that bread is made up of whole grains.
"A lot of the rules are crafted in ways that they can be manipulated to sell a product," Glanz said.
Menu planners for major restaurant chains have also shown some craftiness in dealing with health nuts. They have to guard against the "veto vote." If a group of folks want to go out to a restaurant, one person can veto the selection on the grounds that "there's nothing there I can eat," Glanz said.
So to get around that, most restaurants try to offer something, like a salad, that even a picky eater can find acceptable. But it may not be all that easy to find on the menu.
"We just completed observation assessments at hundreds of restaurants," she said. "We found that the amount of healthful food choices is just abysmally small, both in sit-down restaurants and fast food."
And that, the restaurant executives claim, is the way most people want it.
"We don't concentrate on offering healthy menu items," one executive said. "We find that people say one thing and do another when it comes to healthier eating."