May 24th, 2011

10 Things Fast-Food Companies Won't Say

Smart Money

1. We have healthy options but they’ll cost you more.

After years of serving 1,000-calorie meals, most fast-food chains have started to offer healthier options salads, fruit cups and other un-fried options. But if you reach for the lower-cal options, be prepared for some sticker shock. On average, the salad with chicken at a fast-food restaurant tends to be the most expensive option on the menu ($4.85 on average) and costs $1.90 more than a large burger, according to a study published in December 2010 by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. And the healthy chicken sandwich costs $3.73 on average, about 26% more than a large “red-meat sandwich.”

This pricing, in addition to the heavy marketing of unhealthy food options, undercuts what the fast food industry says is its commitment to healthy options, says Jennifer Harris, a spokesperson for the center. People typically look to get as much food for the price, which makes the healthy options look less appealing, she adds. But Sue Hensley, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, says that the industry has plenty of affordable healthy options and that fast-food restaurants are “offering more nutritious children’s options” and have “an increased focus on produce.”

2. Don’t expect much from our school fundraisers.

To raise money for the Eldersburg Elementary School in Sykesville, Md., the parent-teacher association enlists the help of local fast food restaurants. Some of the restaurants make it easy, says Meghan Lyons, a Sykesville parent who coordinates the restaurant fundraisers: The school may simply get a percentage of sales during certain hours, typically about 15%. Others require a coupon and at least one hasn’t paid up, she says, despite several events. For the effort, the PTA nets about $1,000 to $1,500 for participating in several of these events each year, says Lyons; some of the events earn as little as $100 per.

Those small gains aren’t surprising, researchers say. Cash-strapped schools are increasingly turning to fast-food restaurants as benefactors, asking them to sponsor sports teams and scholarships, donate free food and other treats as academic incentives, and help raise money in other ways. But these programs aren’t as lucrative as schools might hope, according to a 2006 report by Arizona State University’s Commercialism in Education Unit. The report found that almost three out of four schools participating in these so-called income-generating advertising activities didn’t receive any income in the 2003-2004 academic year. In addition, 12.6% of schools received $2,500 or less and less than 1% of schools received more than $50,000.

3. Those value meals can be awfully expensive.

Ah, the combo meal a delicious combination of food and soda at a discount. Call it genius, call it lunch, but don’t call it cheap: That bundled meal option may encourage customers to spend more than they would otherwise. It’s true that the value meal is typically cheaper than the sum of its parts, but research suggests some people don’t actually want all the parts, or not in such large sizes. Some 15% of customers who wouldn’t have bought fries in an a la carte-only offering do purchase them when there’s a value-or-combo meal option, and even among customers who bought fries in the ala-carte-only offering, more than one in four of them increased their portion size when combo or value meals were offered, according to a study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing in 2010. In effect: They chose a bigger, more expensive size over a smaller, sometimes cheaper option.

As a result, customers may spend more money than they would otherwise. Consider the person who wouldn’t have ordered fries if it weren’t for the combo meal option at McDonald’s, she could spend $6.39 on a Big Mac Medium Value Meal, about $1.30 more than if she’d just bought a Big Mac and a drink. But Hensley says that these combo meals aren’t the wallet busters critics claim. Not only do the meals provide good value, “many national chains offer a wide variety of sides to accompany ‘combo meals,’ which in most cases includes side salads and/or sides of fruit. Most also offer the option of choosing water or milk as a beverage option,” she says.

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