How Fast Food Can Sell Healthy Options: Don't Advertise It

For as long as I can remember, I've had the same plan of attack when it comes to eating a meal. The first thing I do is use my fork to separate the green veggies from everything else. Then, I focus all my energy on stuffing my mouth with just those vegetables. Only when they're done and out of the way do I start enjoying the "quality" portion of the meal.

It's easy to see where this mentality comes from. When I was young, my parents would make me clean my plate before I could leave the table. I didn't want the last taste lingering in my mouth to be gross vegetables, so I made sure to get those out of the way first. And while I don't have the same hatred of veggies now, decades later, I still eat like that.

Old habits die hard. People don't want to eat healthy. And that is what fast food companies have to realize if they want to sell healthier foods.

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The Wall Street Journal has a new piece looking at how companies have been working on cutting down sodium in their menus. But rather than following up these actions by sending out PR blitzes to brag about how they're doing The Lord's Work, many are performing the switch under a veil of secrecy:

Over a six-year period, General Mills cut sodium per serving by 10% to 50% in more than 27 varieties of Helper. The four-cheese lasagna, for example, went from 740 milligrams of sodium per serving in fiscal 2008 to 470 milligrams in fiscal 2014. General Mills' food scientists made the changes by adding ingredients such as garlic, onion, tomato, spices and herbs.
But the company was careful not to tell consumers about the sodium cuts.

One of the companies mentioned in the piece is Boston Market, who lowered one of their signature meal offerings from 2,590 mg of sodium down to "only" 2,000 mg. The taste of the new product wasn't that drastically different from the original, but the company made sure not to let the public in on their little secret. Why?

"When you tell people something's healthy, they think it doesn't taste good," said Sara Bittorf, chief brand officer of Boston Market Corp.

McDonald's can relate. Back in the mid 2000s, the Golden Arches had a bit of a problem. Their company had just been hammered by Morgan Spurlock's surprisingly popular documentary "SuperSize Me," and they were looking for ways to change their image. So, Ronald McDonald took a backseat to the racially diverse group of photogenic 20-year-olds in the "i'm lovin' it" campaign, and they started heavily promoting salad options and "Go Active" versions of their Happy Meal. Then, they made the decision to stop cooking their fries with trans fat.

Instead of the news being met by a thankful public, their offices were inundated with phone calls from people upset that the corporation was taking away the product they've come to love. Because they had to be extra careful with whatever new oil concoction they created, it took McDonald's a full six years between initially announcing the switch and actually implementing it. And how were they thanked when they finally made the change?

McDonald's shares fell 25 cents to $58.53 Thursday.

It all gives us a blueprint for how fast food companies can keep their customers while making their products healthier: Don't say anything.

When people walk into a fast food chain, they're not intending to eat healthy. Once they cross the threshold of the dining area or the drive-thru lane, that decision's been made. Give them an option between salad and burgers, and just about every time that plastic bucket of iceberg lettuce is staying in the fridge. Which is why it's smart that companies are performing these switches in secret.

So, take this as a lesson fast food chains: Stop promoting the fact you're making food healthier. Just, you know, make it healthier and people will buy it like usual.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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