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How Panda Express, Taco Bell, And McDonalds Rebrand Food As ‘Healthy’ Without Changing Much

By Rebecca Leber on April 11, 2013 at 3:30 pm

"How Panda Express, Taco Bell, And McDonalds Rebrand Food As ‘Healthy’ Without Changing Much"

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As a growing number of Americans cite obesity as the most urgent health problem facing the country, the food industry is looking for a way to profit.

Despite playing a critical role in enabling America’s obesity epidemic, fast food chains have recently announced attempts to make their product seem healthier — a number of new menu items that may substitute whole grain for white or turkey for red meat. But for many of these companies, the rebranding is superficial:

Panda Express: Customers at Panda Express will have two rice choices: Steamed white rice or fried brown rice (brown rice has more nutritional value) Chief Marketing Officer Glenn Lunde described how Panda Express hopes to avoid shocking customers. “If you just sell steamed brown rice, you’re not going to sell that much.” He added, “Aren’t we fabulous?”

Taco Bell: The chain that popularized Doritos Locos Tacos announced it would make 20 percent of its meals meet nutritional guidelines, but not before 2020.

Burger King: Burger King’s limited time turkey burger is its attempt at a “game-changer” healthier option. It still weighs in at 530 calories.

McDonalds: McDonalds’ new McWrap uses a green label to trick customers into thinking it’s healthier. Its “healthy” Egg White Delight is 40 calories less than the original and complete with bacon and cheese.

Many executives say they are hesitant to make any major changes, because they expect healthy foods to taste bad and perform poorly. Huffington Post’s Joe Satran described the motivation for the incremental change: Chains add new items “to make consumers think of their restaurants as healthy — or at least not gratuitously unhealthy — and, by extension, OK to visit. In other words, healthy menu items are marketing tools. Like any other new product introduction, they bring attention to the chain; unlike, say, Cool Ranch Doritos Tacos, they shift perception of the brand toward virtue.”

Of course, the problem is not limited to fast food, with sugary drink brands suddenly advertising their nutrition. At least now consumers will have more information to make healthier choices. Obamacare requires chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts on their menus.

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