It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that burgers have been around since the invention of sliced bread and are a staple of American food culture. Fast food chains and gourmet diners alike have created every variant of burger under the sun, from Minetta Tavern’s $26 Black Label Burger to the eponymous Umami Burger of the popular Southern Californian chain. A lot of attention has gone into the elevation of the ingredients of the burger, but according to burger-centric website BurgerBusiness.com, the year 2013 will usher in the next go-to ingredient ready for manipulation—the bun.
“There was a phase where everybody decided to use Angus beef, or some have tested lamb burgers. People have changed cheese, tried blue cheese, or tried Swiss cheese, or tried goat cheese. And of course toppings. You can always change toppings,” Scott Hume, founder of Burger Business, says. “But in 2013, the variable that’s going to get a lot of attention is the bun, and that’s because it’s less expensive to play with a bun than it is to play with the beef patty.”
Ever since the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me made its way across the health classrooms of schools across the nation, consumers have started to take an active interest in healthier options for eating. Fast casual restaurants, such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, that provide more nutritional meals, albeit at a higher cost, have seen a sudden increase in popularity, as the frequent appearance of students at Columbia’s Chipotle location shows. As of September 2012, there are 1625 Panera Bread bakeries in 44 states; as of April 2012, Chipotle boasts having opened 1262 restaurants. Consumers are patronizing these healthier options, which finally indicates that a fast food revolution is on its way.
Or does it?
Sales figures reflect a different reality. While Panera Bread has had a 12.4 percent increase in sales in the last two years, traditional fast food chains still remain as popular as ever. McDonalds experienced a 4.8 percent increase in sales during the year of 2011 alone, and those numbers do not seem to be dropping any time soon.
Cost remains the greatest factor underlying this immobility towards more nutritious options—a ShopSmart survey, which found that cost, a factor selected by 57 percent of those surveyed, was the main factor keeping women from healthy eating. The clientele at fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera are often people in their 30s or 40s who can better afford higher quality preparations. Quick service restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King, on the other hand, attract a greater number of younger people in their teens and 20s, often students who earn little or no income and have a smaller budget to indulge on food compared to the older, wage-earning demographic.
Perhaps what is also at play is simply a lack of motivation to eat healthy. According to Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, fewer Americans reported having healthy eating habits in 2011, declining from 67.7 percent in 2010 to 66.1 percent in 2011.
With the movement toward healthier options within the fast food sector, it can be argued that healthy eating has become the responsibility of the consumer now more than ever. Most fast food restaurants provide the nutritional value of their products (Burger King’s Triple Whopper has 1670 calories with 90 grams of fat, and Wendy’s Baconator has 970 calories with 63 grams of fat, in case you were wondering), so customers are always in a position to make an informed and healthier decision. If motivated, customers could easily choose Burger King’s Chicken BLT Garden Fresh Salad instead, which contains 550 calories and 37 grams of fat—less than a third of the Triple Whopper. Hume says, “If people really do want to eat lower calorie meals, they certainly can without avoiding fast food places.”
“Anytime you have research, you see that people say they want to eat more healthful foods, they want to change their eating habits, but in reality they don’t. Eating habits change very slowly,” Hume says. “Determination is just like January ... Everybody says they’re going to lose weight, and everybody says they’re going to eat healthy, and very little lasting change gets made.”
Does this mean that there is no hope for the health of this country? In the short term, the movement toward healthier eating is going as quickly as people’s budget allow, which is to say, not very quickly. Perhaps over a few decades, there will be a perceptible shift in eating habits, but those are indistinguishable over the course of a year. For now, as Hume says, “It’s just a fabric of American society ... and it’s hard to stay out of it."