Nutritionists have welcomed moves by McDonald's and Burger King to add more healthful fare to their fast-food menus, but many are questioning whether the change will put much of a dent into the North American obesity epidemic.
McDonald's has seen U.S. sales turn around in recent months -- thanks, in part, to new entree-size salads. It has also begun dispensing fitness advice, testing an adult Happy Meal that includes a pedometer for counting footsteps and a fitness program from television personality Oprah Winfrey's trainer.
Last week the Taco Bell chain became the latest to offer healthier choices. Most of its regular menu items now come with a "fresco style" option that lets customers substitute salsa for cheese and sauce. Earlier this month Burger King launched a line of low-fat, fire-grilled, baguette-style chicken sandwiches. And competitor Wendy's International Inc. in some markets is offering milk as an alternative to soda in kids' meals, following the example set by McDonald's.
While health experts applaud these efforts in the face of rising obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, they are quick to note the response may be a reaction to threats of litigation, concerns expressed by public health officials and, most importantly, changing consumer trends.
Should demand shift, all those new salads could go the way of the McLean Deluxe, McDonald's failed attempt a decade ago at a low-fat burger, the experts said.
Perhaps more important than the kinds of meals being sold is full disclosure of what is in them. For example, while a salad topped with grilled chicken may be a better choice than a burger for the health-conscious, the high-calorie dressings people pour over them can negate the benefit, a fact not taken in by some consumers.
The industry is making an effort to provide details of nutritional content on packaging, in-store pamphlets and on Web sites. But it has held out on changing its menu boards, where health advocates are pushing to have calorie and fat facts listed for the millions of people who eat fast food daily.
And while salad consumption has increased, fast-food's core offerings of burgers and fries are holding steady and remain the top two most frequently ordered items in out-of-home dining by men as well as women -- above chicken sandwiches, pizza, or seafood.
Critics say burger makers are having it both ways -- still producing fatty foods while clearing a niche for healthier products to help them compete in a tight market. And while nutritionists concede that the recent menu developments are a positive step, they remain skeptical whether those trends will translate to slimmer waistlines.
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