An Urban's Rural View

Are Healthier Fries a Contradiction in Terms?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Seventeen hundred miles into our cross-country drive, the government is reopening and the farm bill conferees from the House and Senate are preparing to meet. My wife and I haven't yet arrived in Missouri -- that's the next leg of the trip -- but on these two matters I'm from the Show Me state.

Which is to say: If you want me to believe Congress hasn't just kicked the can down the road on the budget, you'll have to show me. If you want me to think the farm-bill conferees can reconcile their differences, you'll have to show me. When legislators stand on principle and show little inclination to compromise, as they do on both these issues, skepticism is called for.

Travel has a way of testing a person's beliefs. Exposed to new sights, sounds and smells, you're forced to think again about your answers to certain questions. This journey has me reflecting again on the best way to encourage healthy eating.

I'd long held that like it or not, Americans are going to eat fast food and processed food, so instead of insisting they renounce it, society should ask that it be made healthier. Keep urging people to eat more broccoli and strawberries, for sure. But recognize that even if they do, they're going to keep ordering burgers and fries. So lighten up on the salt and fat in the burgers and fries and add vitamins and minerals to processed food.

But could I be overestimating the willingness of Americans to eat healthier fast food? That's the question this trip has raised. In a Burger King off I-80 in western Nebraska, the first one I'd entered in many a moon, there were big signs trumpeting new french fries with 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than McDonald's fries.

I tried them. I liked them. But as I munched I wondered: Could others be turned off by the very idea of lower-fat fries? Doesn't lower-fat fries sound like an oxymoron? Isn't the fat the whole point? Mightn't this attempt to promote healthier eating have the perverse effect of converting Burger King customers to McDonald's fans?

On the other hand, if people liked them, might they be tempted to supersize their order, on the probably mistaken assumption that they could eat many more fries without more fat and calories? That, too, would be a perverse effect.

A quick online search indicated I wasn't alone in wondering about public appetites for healthier fast-food choices. Moving from fries to burgers, an article on (…) cites studies dividing American burger eaters' wish lists into three categories:

-- 48% desire a burger using better-quality beef.

-- 35% want a healthier burger -- lighter and leaner. McDonald's 1991 McLean flopped but the Forbes article argues the market today would eat up a lower-fat burger. In 2013, Forbes notes, Diet Coke is the second most popular soft drink, ahead of Pepsi, and Yoplait Light yogurt outsells Yoplait.

-- 17% want to eat healthy all the time and might embrace burgers touting their lack of preservatives, hormones and the like.

Without seeing the studies myself and knowing what other research shows I hesitate to make too much of this. I'm not sure I believe 51% of Americans really want a healthier burger.

Still, there's enough here to leave open the possibility that my long-held belief was right after all. I'm suspending judgment until the next long drive, cross-country road trips being the time I indulge in fast food. If on some future journey I enter a McDonald's and they've answered Burger King's challenge with their own lower-fat fries, I'll consider the case closed.

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10/18/2013 | 10:10 AM CDT
Miss Piggy s guide to dieting should be followed, never eat more than you can carry and you will be okay.