Fries with that?

The fast-food industry wants us to believe it's cleaned up its act. Should parents bite?

“This doesn’t look like a McDonald’s!”

Charlotte Schwartz and her little brother, Griffin, stop in the entrance to the fast-food restaurant, looking puzzled. It is indeed McDonald’s, our first stop on a restaurant mini-tour that includes KFC and Subway. The children turn slowly, taking in the muted lighting and murmuring patrons, the half-eaten salads on taupe granite tabletops, the fruit ’n’ yogurt parfaits, the chrome and wood chairs, and the poster that promises super-fast wireless Internet service with your meal. What’s happened to the McDonald’s they know, with its bright yellows and reds, play area and noise? The only familiar item is the understated cardboard cut-out of Ronald McDonald with a promotion linked to a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

“Do they really give out toys here?” wonders six-year-old Griffin, quickly adding, “Not that I want any, of course!”

“It looks, well, a bit classy,” adds Charlotte, 11. Classy, maybe. Different, certainly. But are the changes more than cosmetic at this new-look McDonald’s, located in an upscale area of Montreal just west of downtown? Do they symbolize fundamental change in a fast-food industry that’s struggled to lumber aboard the healthy-eating bandwagon? And are the advertisements and marketing campaigns that urge consumers to live better, eat well and exercise regularly really, well, real — or are they simply public relations sleight of hand?

The answer, say marketing experts (and at least one mother who knows best) is a bit of both. In response to a burgeoning restaurant market and consumer fears over increasing rates of obesity and related health problems, the fast-food industry is changing, albeit slowly. “Maybe the better question would be: ‘Who are they marketing all this salad and healthy living stuff to?’” remarks Cornelia Howell, a college professor who happens to be Charlotte and Griffin’s mom. “I don’t think it’s the kids. Most of the kids I know wouldn’t touch a salad in a fast-food restaurant. They want french fries, chicken nuggets and burgers.” The bottom line — for trans-fat-fearing parents, at least — is whether it’s safe to take the kids to their favourite fast-food joint. The answer is far from simple.
Think fast food and what jumps to mind? Bet it’s burgers, french fries and shakes, plus a pair of golden arches, maybe a goateed colonel, lots of seasonal toys and, just maybe, that talking chihuahua with the faux Spanish accent.

The industry’s underlying principle hasn’t really budged since brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald came up with the concept back in 1948 in San Bernardino, California: the streamlined menu, alimentary assembly line and dirt-cheap prices. Fresh foods weren’t a money maker; they cost more and consumers didn’t bite.

When Ray Kroc, a broke but savvy milkshake-mixer salesman, went into partnership with the McDonald brothers, he invented the franchise system to overcome financing problems — and kick-started the fast-food phenomenon into the behemoth it is today. Hard on the heels of McDonald’s came a host of others: Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, the fast-food industry grew faster than you could say, “Want fries with that?” As more women entered the workforce, meal preparation got shoved to a back burner in many homes. Fast-food or “quick service” restaurants, as they prefer to call themselves, became a youthful rite of passage — children’s first taste of independence, says Stéphane Maisonnas, a marketing professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Add in the toys, special meal deals and voila! “That’s how kids were seduced,” he continues. “It set the stage for customer loyalty when the kids got older, from the cradle to the grave.”

But then three things happened in the mid-1990s: Baby boomers got older and fatter, science got better, and the general public discovered the truth behind trans fats.

Known in scientific parlance as trans fatty acids, they are little more than oils that are partially hydrogenated to turn them into semi-solid fats. For years they were used in fast-food restaurants because they last longer than unsaturated fats and make foods such as french fries and cookies taste better. But when the news broke in the mainstream media that trans fats could grease the way to a heart attack faster than a tub of lard, panic ensued.
To nervous parents (and media eager to point fingers), all those cute plastic toys and supersized combos offered at the local burger franchise began to look as menacing as the candy-coated house that lured Hansel and Gretel deep into the woods. There has been talk of a “fat tax” levied against restaurants, and lawsuits have been filed (including one against McDonald’s, in which two New York teens claimed the chain’s advertising made them believe the food was nutritionally beneficial, and caused them to become fat). And the hits kept coming, including author Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation, a devastating critique of the fast-food industry, which spawned a recent film as well as a book aimed at children entitled Chew on This. Then there was the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, a diary of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days eating only McDonald’s meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The industry players got the message they had to change. “We are committed to taking action that will most impact consumer perception and trust,” McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner told the chain’s annual meeting last May. “And we will be more aggressive and creative in setting the record straight.”

So how did the chains respond? By championing a new buzzword: choice. It’s not just about burgers and fries anymore. They’ve augmented their menus with healthier items — items such as salads, yogurt and 2% milk — and they all now provide nutrition calculators on their websites that give concerned customers the opportunity to tally up those trans-fat grams, carbohydrates and calories. Some of the changes have succeeded, and some have not. Last year, Wendy’s yanked the short-lived bowl of pineapple, melon and grapes off its menu because of poor sales, while McDonald’s spicy chicken sandwiches proved too hot for North American palates and were withdrawn last summer after only six months on the menu.

Wendy’s now gives a choice of six side dishes at no extra cost, including baked potatoes and a bowl of chili. Burger King also offers substitutions, such as salads, at no extra charge, and will soon introduce applesauce as a substitute for fries. Supersized drinks have been all but eliminated. “We’re responding to Canadian consumer behaviour,” says Leslie Root, director of marketing for Burger King Restaurants of Canada. “We have seen fads come and go, and I wouldn’t say this (healthier choices) is a fad.”

And about those trans fats? In 2002, McDonald’s made a much-publicized McPromise to reduce by half the trans fats on its menu by February 2003. The change didn’t happen, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, pointed out in a full-page New York Times ad in 2004. McDonald’s explanation: Despite constant research, it hasn’t been able to come up with a tasty equivalent. The chain had more McEgg on its face last winter when it revealed that its french fries contain one-third more trans fats than had previously been reported: about 8 g in a 170 g (6 oz) serving. Oops.

With McDonald’s as their rash example, other chains have kept quieter about their efforts to reduce the trans fats in their foods. Harvey’s, Canada’s own burger haven, was first to switch in January 2005, while Wendy’s introduced a trans-fat-free oil in August 2006, after a year of research and testing. KFC Canada followed in October, announcing that nearly all its menu items will have zero grams of trans fat early in 2007. Burger King is still looking for that perfect oil replacement, but is reluctant to talk about the status of the search, citing company secrets and competition. A Subway spokesman notes that the chain didn’t sell high trans-fat products, such as french fries and burgers, in the first place.

McDonald’s, twice the size of its nearest competitor, plans to keep searching too. “We have not given up on this initiative. It’s something that is ongoing for us,” company spokesman Ron Christianson tells me, adding that the fast-food giant has managed in the past year to reduce trans and saturated fats in Chicken McNuggets by more than half, and in Crispy Chicken, by 33 percent.
Is all this enough to keep parents happy? Maybe, if you accept Statistics Canada figures which show that spending on food services, from restaurants to street vendors, has stayed constant for the last 20 years, hovering between 27 and 30 percent of the household food budget. (Americans currently spend 42 percent of their food dollars out of the home.) But with the average cheque size a measly $6.12, and french fries and coffee the most popular menu items, this is not a fine-dining frenzy. Despite more awareness about their health, Canadians are still eating fast food.

For parents like Cornelia Howell, the verdict on the fast-food industry’s efforts to offer healthier choices is mixed. She notes it would be rather silly to expect burger chains to be paragons of nutritional virtue. She and her husband, Paul Schwartz, a baker and web page designer, don’t tell their kids what not to eat so much as ensure they’re exposed to as many different foods and experiences as possible. “We ask them, ‘Well, why do you think the advertising is saying it?’” she says. “We want our kids to be more ‘What do I want?’ kind of people, rather than those who operate along the lines of ‘I want what they say I want.’”

It’s a sentiment I hear repeatedly from moms who are concerned about their children’s nutrition, but deal with it by simply not making it a habit to go out for fast food. Elisabeth Kalbfuss, who has two daughters under the age of four, tells me that it would be nice if the chains added perishable foods such as steamed broccoli or carrots to the kids’ menus, but she’s not holding her breath.

“I go in there expecting the menus to be a nutritional nightmare,” she says. “It’s good that the industry is making an effort, but let’s face it, if you want healthy food, don’t go to, say, McDonald’s. Parents go to McDonald’s because of the play area. Food is an afterthought. It always will be. Do we go out for fast food so Sophie can have an apple? I think not.”

Even Burger King’s Leslie Root, herself a mother of three girls aged four, six and nine, looks at her family’s food consumption both as a parent and an industry executive. “I look at our total food behaviour, at the chips in our cupboard and the whole milk in our refrigerator,” she says from Toronto. “We think of fast food as a special outing, and the girls always have milk with their meal.”

All the mothers agree that it’s up to parents to teach their kids about healthy eating and better choices, that burgers, fries and grilled cheese can take them only so far.

If Charlotte and Griffin are any indication, youngsters today may be harder sells than they were in the past. During our tour, Charlotte says she wouldn’t mind a burger if she happened to be hungry, while Griffin grudgingly admits he’d choose Chicken McNuggets and french fries if he had to, but he prefers macaroni and cheese, with strawberries for dessert. They’re both more thoughtful than I expected, even cynical, about what they put in their bodies.

“Life is a balancing act,” Charlotte says. “That means visits to fast-food restaurants only on occasion.”

FILED UNDER: