- More than 90% of consumers feel compelled to regularly eat healthier foods, with 63% reporting they try most or all of the time to do so, according to a survey by L.E.K. Consulting. Still, 85% of the survey’s 1,600 respondents admit to indulging more than half of the time, while 7% said they rarely or never try to eat healthy.
- Forty-six percent of respondents said fast food was their top indulgence, with the same percentage citing pizza. About 40% of consumers reach for either packaged savory snacks or chocolate/candy, while 31% scream for ice cream.
- Culinary trends incorporating nostalgic foods and global flavors seem to echo this paradox of what the survey analysts call a “talk thin, eat fat” mentality. To balance regular indulgence, consumers increasingly opt for smaller portions of high-fat, high-sugar foods. Sales of miniature pies and single-serve pie slices, for instance, jumped about 20% in the past few years.
This data matches Pew Research Center’s 2016 report, in which 73% of American consumers surveyed said they were focused on healthy eating but 58% admitted that most days they could be better. The American diet today has evolved to include less red meat but significantly more chicken, less milk but more cheese and yogurt, and less sugar but more corn-derived sweeteners. But nutrition experts point to calorie count as the biggest difference — and the biggest problem — of current diets.
As quick-service chains have given way to contemporary fast-casual brands offering allegedly healthier choices, exotic flavors and customization, consumers have ample but uneven choices. Signature salads at the popular chain Sweetgreen range from 420 to 555 calories with 24 to 47 grams of fat per serving, while a McDonald's Quarter Pounders clock in around 530 calories with 28 grams of fat — though the burger contains double the sodium. Chick-fil-A’s chicken nuggets hover around 260 calories and 12 grams of fat, while a grain bowl at Cava with chicken, hummus, lettuce and tomato hits 537 calories with 21 grams of fat and 1200 grams of sodium.
Still, many would argue that the “good” fats in whole grains beat the nutritional value of McDonald’s white bun, a consumer belief that is likely driving the rise of Mediterranean chains like Cava.
The L.E.K. report highlights a few of the tactics that restaurants and brands have employed in recent years to attract customers despite their stated desire for healthier choices. Nostalgic foods get wrapped in modern flavors, like a sweet-potato batter corn dog, or sourced from sustainable farms; fusion blends cultures and cuisines, such as sriracha ketchup or curry potato salad; and comfort foods swap starch for healthier alternatives, as in kale chips and crunchy chickpeas.
Nutrition science has done nothing if not confuse people in the past 30 years with an ever-changing villain. The food industry has been there every step of the way, developing low-fat everything in the ‘90s that added unnecessary sugars and carbs. Then the low-carb fad of the early 2000s nurtured the meat-laden Atkin’s diet, and today about a third of U.S. consumers buy gluten-free foods even though celiac disease or related gastrointestinal issues affect only 7% of the population.
What’s a pressed-for-time, indulgence-prone person to do? Gallup estimates that the average American works 47 hours a week, leaving little time for preparing thoughtful meals or even grocery shopping. The “talk thin, eat fat” report also mentions a major force: “treats are an affordable pleasure” — an indulgence within reach. This mindset continues to buoy the fast food segment, with QSRs expected to grow 4.5% globally by 2022, despite consumer desire for healthier eating habits.