Monday, January 11, 2010

Lite on calories, not credibility

Forget the celery and cottage cheese. Any serious dieter knows the way to a healthier bod these days is chowing down on tacos, ice cream and any number of chain-restaurant specialties.

Unless you’ve put a foot through the TV this NFL playoff season, chances are you’ve heard about these breakthroughs in healthful dining—boons like Taco Bell’s new Drive-Thru Diet, or the just-added frozen treats that Baskin-Robbins is touting as “better for you.”

One day, chains are touting bellybombers that should’ve come with their own stents and defibrillators. A few days into the New Year, they’re touting low-calorie sandwiches, egg-white-only breakfast wraps, and waist slimmers like peppercorn-coated steak.

Snarkiness aside, the new options provide a long-sought alternative to dishes that often had cardiologists hyperventilating. Starbucks, for instance, is inviting fans of its calorie-packed Frappucinos to offset their guilt with a new line of panini sandwiches containing fewer than 400 calories each. The coffee chain has also snagged bragging rights to being the first mega-sized chain to add an organic option, a line of Peter Rabbit-brand organic snacks.

Starbucks, as one of the industry’s New Age concepts, may be able to pull off the we’re-actually-healthy assertion. But are consumers going to redefine a chain like Dunkin’ Donuts as the place to promote your health (the chain just added the option of having its morning sandwiches and wraps prepared with egg whites)?

Hey, egg-white-only sandwiches deliver a benefit, even if your other breakfast options include a crème-filled, deep-fried ball of dough. But you have to wonder if the chains are underestimating the impressions they’ve stamped on the public consciousness through decades of touting high-indulgence items. One day a system is touting a selection that would’ve made a decadent Roman shudder, the next they’re pushing something as being heart-healthy. Is the public memory so short?

Credibility will no doubt be further strained by research indicating the calorie counts posted on some chains’ menus are low-balling the tallies by as much 50%. If the big brands are underreporting their love handle contributions when disclosure is required by law, how much trust can the public put in unverified health claims?

The industry will need to win public faith by telling the truth about its health initiatives, which should be as simple and sensible as they can be. Claiming a better-for-you bacon just won’t cut it. But swapping carrot sticks for fries would be a believable way of cutting calorie and fat intake.

Most important, the business can’t afford at this stage to make unfounded claims. If it squanders the public trust by trying to make a lard burger sound like the healthiest thing since acai, it deserves the backlash that will no doubt come.

1 comment:

Bret Thorn said...

You know, it's interesting what makes it into the public consciousness as good for you, and it often has nothing to do with facts. Egg whites are only better for you than whole eggs from the perspective of calories. All sorts of wonderful nutrients are contained in yolks; whites are just protein (yes, egg yolks contain cholesterol, but it's saturated fat in the diet, not dietary cholesterol, that contributes to blood cholesterol — and diet is a minor factor compared to genetics when it comes to blood cholesterol anyway).
As for açaí, it's a fruit. All fruit is good for you. Our tendency to focus on one hip, cool, new ingredient as the panacea to our health woes is, I think, one reason Americans are so confused about what's good for them.