Fast food reflects trends

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    Americans love fast food. I know I do. While I do appreciate the work that goes into, and the quality of a “home-cooked” meal, there is just something about being able to get what I want relatively fast.

    In this country, there are restaurants everywhere you look. Some of them are chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, while others are little hole-in-the-wall joints run by mom and pop.

    In fact, there are so many restaurants that it is easy to get lost in the sea of fried and greasy goodness.

    A few years ago, restaurants across the board began to update their menus to accommodate the amount of fad diets that hit the scene. The Atkins Diet craze caused some of the more visible changes.

    Burgers were offered bunless and wrapped in a piece of lettuce, as portions were decreased and words like “low carb” entered everyday conversation.

    Restaurants were played to their audiences, offering them menu items that would fit whatever diet plan they were on.

    There are a couple ways to look at this. Either the restaurants are being more consumer conscious, or they are trying to save face in light of negative public opinion. I prefer the latter.

    For more than 40 years, McDonald’s, along with other fast food burger joints, served a basic kid’s meal: hamburger, fries, drink and a toy. Now, kids have the option of getting fruit in lieu of their fries or milk instead of soda.

    Some people, including myself, viewed this as a shock.

    But do these new “healthier” options really help?

    Gina Hill, an assistant professor in the nutrition department, said these new meal options can be beneficial to a person’s diet. She said even the slightest change is healthier.

    Hill said when people order their meal with these options, they are cutting back on some foods that may be higher in calories or saturated fat.

    When people cook at home, they often cook meals that are healthier than what they can get in a restaurant, Hill said. Still the main draw to fast food is its convenience.

    Mom and pop restaurants are nice because of what they offer. In addition to an increase in quality, these establishments offer a more cozy environment for dining as opposed to the hustle and bustle of fast food restaurants. Some of the best dining experiences I have had have been at little hole-in-the-wall restaurants where they treat you more like a person than just a customer.

    These restaurants do have one significant disadvantage. The food often takes more time to prepare, meaning customers have to wait longer for their meals. What impact have these newer menus had on Americans over the years?

    Research from the National Center for Health Statistics in 2002 said 64 percent of Americans 20 and over are either overweight or obese.

    While there are other factors that contribute to these patterns, a lot of it has to do with diet and exercise.

    An article in the Aug. 18 issue of The Washington Post said several restaurants added healthier items to their menus only to remove them later because of poor sales. In some cases, the restaurants just pulled back on promotional campaigns.

    Another ploy used, according to the article, is to make something appear healthier than it is. Restaurants add unhealty ingredients to salad. Wendy’s Homestyle Chicken Strips Salad, when combined with ranch dressing, contains 670 calories – more than any other sandwich at Wendy’s except the Classic Triple with cheese (910 calories).

    Burger King recently received a lot of criticism by marketing the Enormous Omelet sandwich. While most people were looking at the caloric intake from eating this sandwich, a whopping 740, they failed to realize the reasoning behind it was based on consumer purchasing trends. Burger King simply realized many customers were purchasing two sandwiches, so they decided to make one big sandwich instead.

    McDonald’s especially has received a lot of bad press in recent years. Not only has it been sued by individuals claiming that Big Macs and chicken nuggets made them fat, but it was also the subject of a documentary in which one man ate nothing but McDonald’s food for a month and suffered adverse health effects from it.

    I guess I should not have been surprised last week when I saw McDonald’s is starting “Passport to Play,” a program designed to promote more active lifestyles by exposing elementary school children to different games from around the world. They already have some of the best playground equipment available at each restaurant.

    McDonald’s, I can’t help but think, is trying to do whatever it can to restore some of its tarnished image.

    Fast food restaurants have been trying to please their customers for years. They are willing to do anything, even if it means changing their menu, to attract and keep customers. By adding these additional foods, they are making the restaurant appeal to a wider variety of people and tastes.

    Healthier menu options are a good thing to have for the part of the population that wants them. Sometimes, I admit, I even indulge in them myself.

    However, not much will ever beat the taste of a juicy burger, fries and an ice cold drink.

    News Editor Michael Bishop is a junior news-editorial journalism major from Providence, N.C.