In the midst of an obesity epidemic, low calorie items are fueling the growth of America's biggest and baddest restaurant chains.
Lower calorie foods and beverages, and the major restaurant chains that sell more of them, outperformed less healthy alternatives in the U.S. over the past five years, according to a report released Thursday by the Hudson Institute.
The study, called "Lower-Calorie Foods: It's Just Good Business," looked at 21 of the nation's largest restaurant chains, from fast food giants like Burger King and McDonald's to full-service chains like Olive Garden and Applebee's, and separated their menu items into two categories: lower calorie items and traditional items. It then tracked the performances of the two food types from 2006 to 2011, and found that lower calorie menu items outperformed traditional ones at 17 of the 21 restaurant chains studied.
Henry Cardello, director of the Hudson Institute's obesity initiative, emphasized that the menu options classified as low calorie weren't always marketed as such, but sold better anyway.
"When it comes to more indulgent foods, the minute you tell someone 'Oh by the way, you're going to a fast food restaurant, and there's a healthier item on the menu,' everyone runs the other way," Cardello says. "Nobody's really selling these items very hard, demand is showing up here anyway."
The restaurants which tapped into that demand increased their sales, increased their total food and beverage servings, and increased the number of customers walking through the door from 2006 to 2011, the study found. Sales revenue, total customers, and total servings all declined in restaurants that reduced the number of low calorie options on their menu in that time period.
Customers of the restaurants ate fewer french fries, drank fewer non-diet sodas over that time, and sales of 11 of the 12 most popular hamburgers also declined.
"Consumers are telling you they want more and more of these products," says Cardello, who formerly worked for Coca-Cola and General Mills . "This is business, it's strictly business — the moral argument, God-bless, there's a good moral argument — but just do it for business because it just makes sense for you."
Lower calorie items were defined as 500 calories or less for entrees, 50 calories or less for beverages, and 150 calories or less for sides and desserts. The study found about 38 percent of menu items offered by the 21 restaurants in 2011 were lower calorie, up from about 36 percent in 2006.
That modest increase is more impressive when the scale is considered: the 21 restaurants studied accounted for $102 billion in sales and more than 50 billion servings during the survey.
"The report shows that the right thing and the profitable thing are not mutually exclusive," says James Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the study. "Companies can do good while doing well."