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Fast-food consumers care more about quality than health, statistics show

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In attempts to compete with fast-casual chains that claim to be healthier than their lowly fast food step-cousins, some big names in the fast-food game have tried introducing options for the health-conscious: You can get oatmeal for breakfast at McDonald’s now, for example. Chick-fil-a and Wendy’s both have a multigrain bun option for their grilled chicken sandwiches. Just last month, Domino’s added salads to its menu.

But according to Forbes, people are more interested in the idea of healthier foods than they are in actually purchasing healthier options from fast-food chains. They’re aware that the healthy options exist, but they aren’t all that interested in buying them:

Image: Technomic Consumer Brand Metrics
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And when you look at the fast-food brands that ranked highest for “availability of healthy options” in 2015 according to Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics tool, the sales paint an interesting picture. Subway, Quiznos, and Pinkberry all scored high in the healthy options rankings, but all three reported a decline in year-over-year sales for 2015. Other brands like Luby’s, Golden Corral, and Sizzler saw increases of less than 1 percent, and even though some brands—like Chick-fil-a and Potbelly—saw significant sales increases, the average year-over-year change for the top 10 fast-food chains for healthy options was -0.3 percent. So consumers are giving these chains high rankings in the healthy department, but that doesn’t mean they’re choosing to eat there.

In fact, according to another Technomic report from 2015, “healthy options” was only the sixth-most important consideration for fast-food eaters, who place a higher emphasis on factors like the variety and portability of their drive-thru meals. Consumers also, unsurprisingly, want more bang for their buck: Portion sizes ranked higher than healthy options in the report.

And the number one characteristic fast-food consumers take into consideration is the availability of “high-quality, fresh food.” Sure enough, sales trends support the fact that consumers value high-quality and fresh over healthy. Almost all of the top 10 brands that ranked highest for “food quality” on CBM in 2015 saw year-over-year sales increases, with the only exceptions being Ben & Jerry’s and Cold Stone Creamery (Perhaps ice cream is out now that froyo is in?). Potbelly, Culver’s, Marco’s Pizza, and Jet Pizza all saw double-digit sales growth, and the top 10 averaged a 10.9 percent increase, which blows that -0.3 percent of the “healthy” brands out of the water.

Image: Technomic Consumer Brand Metrics
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In-N-Out, which received the highest ranking for food quality, touts never-frozen, additive-free ingredients, which are apparently more important to consumers than any kind of multigrain bullshit. (Animal-style fries aren’t exactly good for you, but hey, at least the potatoes are fresh.) Marco’s Pizza ranked fifth and saw a 34.3 percent sales increase, because people are apparently nuts for their “authentic” Italian pizza on housemade dough.

And hey, anyone can throw “authentic” into some copy. It’s not like there are regulations in place to determine what is and what isn’t authentic. We’ll likely see more fast-food brands moving toward these types of ad campaigns that stress quality and freshness. Subway is already shifting toward an emphasis on its new antibiotic-free chicken, and Quiznos and Golden Corral have pledged to switch over to cage-free eggs—in nine years’ time.

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So Wendy’s might have a multigrain bun, but is it fresh? Is it organic? Is it made in-house by a caring grandmother who has been making bread all her life? People aren’t looking at calories so much as the quality of the ingredients, and fast-food chains will do anything to increase sales, so brace yourselves for the coming onslaught of brands claiming that they’re the most authentic and the freshest on the block.

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