After years of counting calories, Americans now indulging in fatty foods

September 24, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Bacon burgers are replacing bran muffins.

After a decade of dieting, burned-out Americans increasingly are substituting rich foods for low-calorie fare. Especially when they dine out.

"We have spent the last 20 years analyzing every mouthful of food we swallow for its goodness and badness," said Susan Haywood, a director at Yankelovich Partners, a Westport, Conn., research company that conducts an annual study of consumer trends.

"Our research shows that consumers have decided it's enough," she said. "We can't drink or smoke anymore. Drugs are out. The economy is soft. So we eat."

The fact that the number of overweight Americans has actually increased during our dieting frenzy -- to 34 percent of adults in 1991, from 27 percent in 1981 -- may be part of it ,too.

"People want more for their money these days, particularly when they dine out," said Ron Paul, president of Technomics, a Chicago-based restaurant analysis firm. "Forget that prissy and expensive Nouvelle. People want a little excess, and with this economy, there's not much else to be excessive about."

That doesn't mean that Americans don't care about eating healthy. Research by Opinion Research Corp. in Princeton, N.J., shows that more Americans today are concerned with nutrition than ever before. Low-fat and fat-free foods are still strong supermarket sellers.

But the same study also shows that 91 percent of those people interviewed value food taste over any other food attribute.

And fatty foods taste good.

"It's an interesting dichotomy," said John LaRosa, president of Marketdata Enterprises, a consumer research firm that exclusively studies diet-related products. "Consumers are very concerned about fat and cholesterol, but premium ice cream sales are up for the first time in years. People are buying more bacon and meat. And sales of diet fast-food sandwiches like McDonald's McLean Deluxe are down."

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream Inc. is seeing sales of its super-premium ice cream, with 15 percent butterfat, rise for the first time in years while low-fat yogurt sales are flat, said Rob Michalak, a company spokesman. A new hot seller from the Vermont-based ice cream maker is Wavy Gravy, an enticing blend of Brazil nuts and caramel ice cream, with ripples of thick chocolate fudge and roasted almonds.

Karen Brown, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, calls it the "scrimp and splurge syndrome." Many consumers exercise and try to eat well. But when they want to reward themselves, they look for food that makes them feel good -- no matter how rich or fattening it is.

A lot of the change in consumer habits is attributable to an overdose of contradictory information.

After years of conflicting reports citing dietary dangers, consumers have given up trusting the experts.

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