Discuss as:

French fry sales drop as more choose low-cal foods, study finds

Serving lower calorie and low-fat foods isn’t just good for the hearts and arteries of customers – it’s good for the bottom line, too, according to a new study published Thursday.

Restaurant chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell are making more money by offering apple slices, oatmeal, and food made without artery-clogging trans-fats, the report by the Hudson Institute found.

They analyzed sales figures at 21 big restaurant chains, from fast-food outlets like Taco Bell and Sonic to sit-down restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Some of them have started offering lower-calorie options.

“French fries are declining in both number of servings and share of total food servings among quick-service chains that have more than $3 billion in sales,” the report reads. “Among the same chains, lower-calorie beverages are also outperforming traditional beverages,” it adds.

“Consumers are hungry for restaurant meals that won’t expand their waist lines, and the chains that recognize this are doing better than those that don’t,” said Hank Cardello, a former food company executive who directs Hudson’s Obesity Solutions Initiative and who wrote the report. Cardello has worked for Coca-Cola, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch and Cadbury-Schweppes.

The food industry has been under heavy pressure to provide healthier foods to Americans. With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, and rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes soaring, policymakers and the public alike are looking for ways to help people keep the weight off.

And separate research published Thursday confirms that fatty, salty food can kill. A study presented at the American Stroke Association meeting found that people who ate Southern-style delicacies such as fried chicken regularly had a 40 percent higher chance of stroke than people who ate such goodies only occasionally.

The 2010 health reform law will require restaurants that have 20 or more branches to list calorie counts on their menus starting in 2014, although final rules have yet to be worked out.

Consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have stepped up pressure to get restaurants to change their menus voluntarily, while also pressing for stronger regulation. CSPI publishes an annual report on some of the most calorie-laden offerings.

Many restaurant companies had argued that when they tried to offer lower-calorie foods, customers just didn’t go for them. Some have lobbied hard against initiatives to force them to list calories on menus, or more radical moves like New York’s ban on supersize sodas.

But surveys show customers say they want healthier options.

Cardello, with funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, set out to see if customers were actually buying the low-fat, sugar-free options.

They found that between 2006 and 2011, most of the growth in business was fueled by the lower-calorie choices. In 17 of the 21 restaurant chains people spent more on the lower-calorie foods than on fatty fare.

The report documents that restaurants offering healthier foods reported a 5.5 percent increase in sales over that time – that’s sales in the same individual restaurants. Those that didn’t offer many low-calorie options had their same-store sales fall 5.5 percent.

Overall traffic grew 10.9 percent in the restaurants offering lighter fare and it fell 14.7 percent on those sticking to only fatty foods.

The study used calorie counts to determine which items were healthier. A sandwich or entrée was considered lower-calorie if it had no more than 500 calories. Beverages with 50 or fewer calories per eight ounces were considered lower-calorie.

“This report shows that companies can serve both their interest in healthy profits and their customers’ interest in healthier eating,” said Dr. James Marks, director of the health group at Robert Wood Johnson.

Spokespeople for several of the restaurant chains said they were examining the report.

The study on Southern food and stroke helps explain why Southerners and African-Americans have a higher risk of stroke, researchers said.

“We’ve got three major factors working together in the Southern-style diet to raise risks of cardiovascular disease: fatty foods are high in cholesterol, sugary drinks are linked to diabetes and salty foods lead to high blood pressure,” said Suzanne Judd, a biostatistician at the University of Alabama Birmingham who led the study.

Her team used data from surveys and medical visits from 20,000 adults in 48 states to demonstrate that those who ate Southern-style cooking six times a week had a 41 percent higher stroke risk compared to those who ate it about once a month. A diet rich in fried foods, biscuits, ham and bacon accounted for 63 percent of the higher risk of stroke that African-Americans have, Judd’s team told the meeting. The study followed the volunteers from 2003 to 2007.

But those who ate fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains five times a week or more had a 29 percent lower stroke risk than those who ate them three times a week or less.

Related stories: