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Fast Food Eateries Take Aim at Waistlines

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Hardee's is testing low-carb burgers wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. McDonald's has signed up Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer as a pitchman. Burger King is launching a line of low-fat chicken sandwiches.

Under fire for supersizing Americans, fast-food chains are responding with a deluge of nutritional information and serving up some lower-calorie foods.

Consider what's happened in just the past week. McDonald's announced it was teaming up with Bob Greene to promote a Go Active meal for adults, with a salad, a pedometer to count steps and a bottle of water or fountain drink. (For now, it's available only in Indiana). Wendy's revamped the nutrition section of its Web site to provide more information on meal choices, including recommendations for people who are dieting or have diabetes. And Thursday, Burger King unveiled its grilled sandwiches with 5 grams of fat, and a light combo meal made up of one of those sandwiches, bottled water and a salad.

Will all this make a dent in Americans' waistlines? Or the companies' bottom lines?

"The track record for 'light' in fast food has been historically pretty spotty," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consultant group. He mentioned Taco Bell's failed Border Light menu of the 1990s. "But the times and the climate have changed, so I think the market is probably more receptive."

So much so, perhaps, that Taco Bell is making another run at lighter fare. Earlier this month, it rolled out Fresco-style entrees, which substitute healthy salsa for fatty cheeses and sauces. Successful salads

Concerns about the growing number of overweight Americans --- along with government encouragement, the threat of lawsuits and some gloomy predictions from a few financial analysts --- have spurred some of the changes. So has the success of chains that have heavily promoted healthier choices, such as Subway and Wendy's.

When Wendy's introduced its ''Garden Sensations'' salads in early 2002, sales boomed --- but a year later, they're lagging. McDonald's introduced a line of chicken salads with Newman's Own dressings in late March, and it experienced a similar initial jump in sales. In each month since the McDonald's salads debuted, comparable same-store sales have increased over the previous year, the company reported. They were up 10 percent in August.

Jesse Boone of Alpharetta said he used to avoid McDonald's, because he didn't like its fried foods or level of service. Now that he can order a grilled chicken Caesar salad with low-fat dressing, he's more willing to go with his daughters, ages 2 and 4.

"I'm looking for food for my kids, and the salad just works for me," Boone said. "I can feed them the Happy Meal and everyone's happy."

Some of the increase in sales may be caused by fast-food diners seeking a change from the same old menu items, rather than a quest for healthy food, Goldin suggested.

Hardee's streamlined its menu this year to focus on the ''Thickburger,'' an Angus beef sandwich that can be ordered with 5 ounces of meat --- or supersized to nearly 11 ounces. Hardee's sales in August rose 6.5 percent over last year. But the chain also is testing a lower-fat turkey burger and a low-carbohydrate burger in a handful of St. Louis restaurants, and it plans to post nutritional information in all its outlets within the next month.

"We need to have a range of options for our customers to choose from," said Hardee's spokesman Brad Haley. "People still tend to want a very tasty burger more than anything else." Going for the grill

Burger King, which changed ownership in December amid declining sales and market share, is betting consumers will want a grilled chicken sandwich, too. The company announced three 350-calorie sandwiches, served on baguettes baked daily in its shops, with barbecue sauce, grilled peppers or mustard.

The Santa Fe chicken baguette is in stores now; the other two will roll out in October. The company has signed up Chicago chef Rick Bayless, host of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," to endorse the Santa Fe sandwich in TV ads.

"It's a strong and bold move, and we're just hopeful that it will resonate," said Dan Fitzpatrick, whose South Bend, Ind.-based Quality Dining owns 118 Burger King franchises.

Kathleen Irby of Midtown may be the kind of customer he's looking for, if Burger King can change consumer perceptions that it's just a burger joint. She eats at fast-food outlets three or four times a week and usually orders lighter fare. She wants her meals quickly --- and healthful.

Wendy's mandarin chicken salad is a favorite, but Irby hasn't tried the heavily promoted salads at McDonald's, even though it's just a few steps from her office. She'd rather have a burger and fries there.

"McDonald's is the quintessential fast-food place," Irby said. "If you're going to choose to go to McDonald's, why not go ahead and get something that's not good for you?"

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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