Americans are showing less concern about fat and more concern about taste

June 09, 1993|By Cara De Silva | Cara De Silva,Newsday

The night was lively and warm, the scent of grass and magnolias was in the air, and Marie Squerciati, a TV writer and New York mother, felt summer in her heart. "I wanted to celebrate," she said, "and not with ice milk or no-fat frozen yogurt. I wanted the perfect ice cream cone."

If pollsters and pundits are right, Ms. Squerciati is part of a trend, building for several years and now sweeping the country: an inclination to indulge ourselves a little more, to discipline ourselves a little less and to be more forgiving about all of it.

"What we are seeing," said Mona Doyle of Consumer Network Inc., an organization that polls 6,000 shoppers and restaurant-goers a year, "is a renewed interest in full-flavored foods, satisfaction and fun and what we are hearing is a lot less about 'pigging out' and a lot more about 'digging in.' "

Ice-cream flavors such as Carrot Cake Passion, Triple Brownie Overload and Cappuccino Commotion are evidence of that digging in.

Since Haagen Dazs Extraas (the three above and other flavors) debuted in July, the company's dollar share of the super-premium ice cream market has risen to 60 percent, said spokesman David Gilman. Extraas have up to 22 grams of fat and 340 calories in a four-ounce serving, while a serving of good old vanilla has only 17 grams of fat and 260 calories. (According to federal health guidelines, Americans should keep their fat intake to less than 30 percent of total calories. If you're eating 1,500 calories a day, no more than 450 calories -- or 50 grams -- should come from fat.) The company's new line of frozen yogurt Extraas also is doing extremely well.

And consider the following:

According to Jens Knutson of the American Meat Institute, consumption of bacon has gone up 8 percent in the past year.

A soon-to-be-released National Restaurant Association study says, despite widespread nutritional education since the study was last done in 1989, the number of diners who rigorously

watch their diet in restaurants has gone down instead of up.

And Mega Mac, at half a pound, McDonald's biggest burger yet, is being marketed in Washington. (The company denies it is considering national distribution, but Nancy Kruse of Technomic, which researches the food-away-from-home industry, believes "past history suggests otherwise. If a local item develops a great following," she said, "the company is likely to pick it up and go nationwide."

It is not only the Mega Mac that is significant. "In the last 18 %% months," Ms. Kruse continued, "virtually every major hamburger chain in the United States except one has decided against a low-fat hamburger." And despite company denials, there have been highly publicized reports that even the hold-out, McDonald's seaweedy McLean Deluxe, is about to be deep-sixed.

A recent Harris poll disclosed that the number of Americans who tried hard to avoid cholesterol and fat went down 6 percent from 1991 to 1992.

In January, an article in American Demographics announced, "Despite all of the talk about health and fitness, most Americans are fat and getting fatter."

And after a three-year dip, one of the hottest restaurant categories in the United States is the steak house. No surprise, then, that Pizza Hut, spurred on by consumers, decided to do a temporary promotion of Steak Lover's Pizza.

Hey, what's going on here?

Well, it seems, a whole bunch of things.

Some trend-watchers argue that the new relaxation is limited to "treat" behavior -- the way we eat in restaurants or occasionally indulge in special goodies -- and point out consumers generally pay more attention to diets at home.

But when fast food has replaced so many home meals, what does that signify? "You would think that we would take some of that home behavior with us," said Ms. Kruse, "that we would follow a dietary regime at least some of the time. But instead we will treat eating out as a time to eat whatever we want." Other observers think treat behavior isn't the only issue. For them, food has come to involve too much discipline and too little fun. "When you pull back on fat and sugar and meat, you are pulling back on high-satisfaction foods, on pleasure," said Ms. Doyle. "People found it too difficult."

There also is the question of whether manufacturers were too quick to the gate, bolting into the business before they knew how to make light foods properly.

"Ultimately, the basis for a food purchase is flavor," said Christopher Brune, editor for Find/SVP, of the Fat & Cholesterol Issues Monitor, which tracks such products for the industry. "If it doesn't taste good, people won't buy it again, so ultimately there was a letdown."

"Favorite foods are the ones we scrutinize most carefully when they don't taste right," added Greg Drescher of Oldways Preservation Trust, a food-issues think tank. "Instead of producing techno foods, the industry would have done better to introduce naturally low-fat dishes from other countries."

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