Bye, Bye Big Burger? Diners Try to Cut Calories


Originally published in Bloomberg Business Week on February 8, 2013 by Venessa Wong.

America’s romance with triple-decker, gooey cheese- and bacon-laden burgers is officially cooling. Not that we’re all noshing on baby carrots.

A new study by the Hudson Institute finds that demand for traditional items at restaurants is falling, with what the think tank calls “low-calorie” items rising to take their place. (At our favorite chains, “low-calorie” is a pretty inclusive category.) In this study, it meant no more than 500 calories for entrées, 50 calories per 8 oz. beverage, and 150 calories for side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. So while apple slices and grilled chicken make the cut, so do McRib sandwiches at 500 calories and and Egg McMuffins at 300 calories.

Not exactly health food, but marginally better than such burgers as Whoppers (630 calories) and Sonic Burgers (640 calories). Sales of signature beef burgers at Burger King (BWK), McDonald’s (MCD), Sonic (SONC), and Wendy’s (WEN) dropped 28 percent from 2006 to 2011, says the report’s author Hank Cardello, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, citing NPD data. This was despite a 3.7 percent increase in traffic at these chains.

“Eleven of 12 iconic burgers declined in this period. That’s a big deal,” he says.

The report examines U.S. sales at 21 large restaurant companies, from McDonald’s and Burger King to Applebee’s (DIN) and Olive Garden (DRI). Sales of all “low-calorie” items increased by 472.4 million servings from 2006 to 2011. In addition to low-cal foods, beverages such as diet soda and coffee are also growing categories.

Patrick Lenow, a spokesman for Sonic, says the chain has been helped by “products that are considered better for you, such as our new chicken sandwich and over 20,000 [options for] lower-calorie drinks.” (That’s not a mistake: Sonic takes great pride in its customizable beverages. Lenow swears there are actually 400,000 drink options at the chain, but most are full-sugar varieties.)

Fatty burgers were not the only food affected. Sales of all higher-calorie foods fell by 1.3 billion orders from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. Orders of fries dipped by 1.9 percent at the largest fast food chains.

Calorie consciousness will likely rise as restaurants with more than 20 locations will be required to post calorie counts, probably as of 2014, under the Affordable Care Act, reports the New York Times.

“You won’t see sales growth if you don’t start transitioning,” says Cardello. “You better be pushing smaller portions of these items, better-for-you items.” Or at least 20,000 lower-calorie drinks.

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