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PASADENA, Calif. - Nancy Woo and her best friend, Amy Chan, pondered the lunchtime menu choices at a local Subway sandwich shop, debating the low-calorie merits of a new turkey-and-bacon wrap against the lure of a meatball sub.
"I want the meatballs, obviously," said the 16-year-old Woo.
"Yeah, but the wrap has like just 200 calories," countered Chan, also 16. "That way we can eat a bag of chips."
The girls chose the wrap, an apparent nod to growing awareness of America's obesity epidemic as fast-food restaurants trumpet their healthier alternatives.
Subway, which has more stores nationally than McDonald's, has heavily marketed its low-fat and low-carbohydrate fare.
Burger King joined the low-carb trend this month by unveiling new bunless Whopper hamburgers, served in plastic salad bowls and eaten with a knife and fork. And McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., has been more aggressive in marketing its salads and this month began posting calorie, carbohydrate and fat information on its products at its restaurants in New York.
But will the profits be as healthy as the food? Some experts doubt it.
"We live in a toxic food environment," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Weight Management Center. "People are not going to go to a fast-food restaurant to eat healthy food."
Healthier menus "have come and gone," said Mark Godward, president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering, a fast-food industry consulting firm. "They simply did not sell."
As the federal team overseeing the redesign of the food pyramid considers a radically different approach that aims to compete with the Atkins and South Beach diet plans, fast-food chains again are introducing healthier menu items such as salads, fruit and sandwiches with lower fat content.
Ken Barum, corporate vice president for McDonald's, said the chain has an array of healthier options in restaurants around the world, including apple slices, more salads and juice. He said McDonald's has been selling Big Macs without buns for years.
The Subway chain's somewhat healthier menu is seen as part of the reason for its rapid growth, spurred by a national advertising campaign featuring Jared Fogle, now 24, who lost 245 pounds in one year when he was a college student in Indiana, helped by exercise and eating the same two low-calorie Subway sandwiches every day.
While the introduction of healthier fare may offer some people alternatives, many said it was unlikely to change the way Americans eat in any substantial way. "One thing we know about consumer perceptions is that they are hard, if not impossible, to change," said Christine Moorman, a professor of marketing at Duke University. "Consumers are skeptical of wholesale changes in their belief structure, especially if the changes are seen as being cynical. I don't think it (new menus) will affect people's perceptions."
Fernstrom of the University of Pittsburgh pointed out that greater awareness of healthy food choices and general national concern about obesity might give the industry an edge that was lacking in the past, but she was not convinced.
"It is a step in the right direction, but it is a baby step," she said.
The road to dietary perdition in the United States has been a long one, decades in the making.
In 1973, food prices were at near-record levels and the war in Vietnam was stirring popular discontent. President Richard Nixon ordered Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to do something to lower food prices.
Butz did two things. He nearly tripled the amount of corn that could be grown in the United States and lowered tariffs on some imported foods. That had unforeseen consequences.
With a flood of corn available, Japanese scientists came up with a process to make high-fructose syrup out of corn. And the lower tariffs allowed the profitable use of palm oil. Both items became widely used ingredients in processed and fast-food products.
The syrup and the oil made food taste better, but they also induced human bodies to retain greater amounts of fat.
U.S. officials estimate that 60 percent of Americans are overweight and that 20 percent are obese, meaning they weigh at least 30 percent more than their ideal weight. In 1991 only 12 percent of Americans were obese, according to government estimates.
Another change in the nation's fast-food diet came when restaurants started "super-sizing" meals. In 1960 the average bag of McDonald's french fries contained 200 calories. Today's "super sized" version has 610 calories.
But there clearly is an awareness of the public's desire for greater choice when buying fast food.
"We want to help people customize their eating strategies," said Glad Markunas, a senior vice president at Burger King.
She noted that the new stripped-down Whopper has 280 calories, compared with the fully loaded version's 560 calories. The Double Whopper minus the trimmings drops from 980 calories to 540 calories.
Nutritionists said the response from the national chains was encouraging.
"This is a really important step in offering people healthy choices," said Bethany Doerfler, a registered dietician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "But the second step is actually making that healthy choice.
"A lot of Americans are not planning their meals," she said. "They need to do the planning and make choices that fit the plan."
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.