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DESPITE LEAN LONGINGS, FAT IS IN FAVOR

Americans may say they want healthier foods, but judging by the dominance of fried, creamed and cheese-laden creations at this year's National Restaurant Association Show, restaurateurs know better.

"The customers want taste," said Michael Reed, western zone manager for Chef America Inc., Saturday.This explains why the company's "Hot Pockets" snack foods - glistening combinations of croissant, cheddar, and ham, pepperoni or beef - outsell "Lean Pockets" versions of the same products by a ratio of about 70 percent to 30 percent, he said.

Evidence supporting the theory could be seen in the clusters of people at booths offering fat-rich samples, and in the absence of lettuce among the show's 1,900 exhibits.

About 24 million Americans are severely obese, defined as 70 percent over ideal body weight, and doctors say tens of millions of others could afford to shed a few pounds.

A dominant flavor at the show, which ends Wednesday, was certainly fried and fries. "French fries are America's favorite snack food," boasted one salesman from "Idaho Joe's Fries-in-a-minute machine" as he handed out hot samples.

"We picture it beside the pop machine in gas stations," said Steve Nitschke, inventor of the contraption which sells for $5,995. At noon Saturday he had sold a few of the new machines, and said he hoped his Ohio-based company would eventually sell several thousand units a year.

His neighbor at the show, who offered a frozen French fry boasting 45 percent less fat than most leading brands, was less successful. However, staff were optimistic their product - a pectin-coated fry which absorbs less oil - will take off.

"This show's not really a selling show, but we've generated a lot of interest," said Dave Ball, new products manager for J.R. Simplot Co., which makes the fry.

Research shows consumers are willing to pay for lower-fat French fries, he said. However, judging by the queues around booths offering pizza, egg rolls, and bacon on toothpicks, consumer demand for grease hardly seemed on the wane.

There were no fewer than 39 listings in the show's program for booths selling deep fat fryers, compared with five convection versions and just one oil-less fryer.

At a soup counter, a combination of cream-of-chicken mixed with cream-of-broccoli-with-cheese was being downed at a ratio of two-to-one over a more sophisticated tomato basil with pasta creation, a representative said.

"Have you had your vegetables today, gentlemen?" one sample-holder chirped hopefully, gesturing to paper cups filled with green bean salad.