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AMERICANS STILL HAVE A WHOPPER OF AN APPETITE

Thin may be in, cholesterol may count, but when Americans order burgers, bigger is still better.

In fact, after perusing the latest fast-food offerings, a nutritionist might think the low-fat era is over. At the drive-through window or in the sandwich shop, self-denial is out and "reward foods" are in.Among news flashes from the more-is-more food front:

-After watching a lower fat menu fail to wow customers last year, Taco Bell has launched a $200 million ad campaign to let the public know that robust fare is what this chain's all about. A new item on the menu: "4 Alarm Double Decker Tacos."

- Positioning itself on the cutting edge of indulgence, Pizza Hut is introducing TripleDeckeroni Pizza - complete with six kinds of cheese and 90 pieces of pepperoni per pie.

- Though McDonald's has just finished "streamlining" its menu, bulky trenchermen are unlikely to downsize at the Golden Arches. Gone is the McLean Deluxe, a low-fat burger made partly from seaweed. Gone also are two of four salad offerings. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that McDonald's plans to enlarge the size of its regular hamburger patty.

- After beefing up its burger 18 months ago, Burger King has turned to its breakfast menu. This month, it debuted a bigger breakfast Croissan'wich. Its new Biscuit Sandwich promises to be 12.5 percent bigger than a comparable entree from McDonald's. "Consumers want value," says Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller. "They want to fill up their stomachs without depleting their wallets."

- Even eateries generally deemed to be more nutrition-conscious than the traditional burger outlet are stressing indulgence. Last week, Au Bon Pain Co., the Boston-based chain of bakery cafes, introduced six new sandwiches that it variously described as "reward foods," "getaways for the palate" and a "vacation-like gastronomic experience."

"This is about more taste, not bigger portions," Au Bon Pain cochairman Ron Shaich says of the new entrees.Nevertheless, even the relatively healthy-sounding tomato-and-mozzarella offering weighs in with nearly half the suggested maximum daily fat intake.

To be sure, some low-fat items remain on many menus. McDonald's, for example, offers a grilled chicken sandwich. According to the company's nutritional chart, the sandwich contains 260 calories and 4 grams of fat. By way of comparison, the quarter pounder with cheese contains 530 calories and 30 grams of fat.

Most restaurants insist that heftier entrees are simply a responseto popular demand. If consumers really wanted tofu and buffalo meat, restaurants would happily oblige.

A McDonald's spokeswoman pointed out that lack of popular demand prompted the chain to shed some high-calorie items along with its McLean Deluxe and salad varieties.

But there is a chicken-and-egg question to be pondered. Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, notes that lower fat items are rarely promoted as "value meals."

"What we're seeing now is supersizing - pay an extra quarter and get twice as much food," she says. "It's hard for a lot of consumers to turn their back on a deal like that."

Of course, when it comes to healthy food, many consumers talk turkey - and then order a double Whopper with cheese.

"Forty to 50 percent of the population talks about healthy foods," says Au Bon Pain's Shaich. "Only about half that number actually eats it."

Two years of planning and about $400,000 worth of research were part of Au Bon Pain's decision to introduce such sandwiches as the Arizona Chicken, the California Grilled Chicken, the Steak-and-Cheese Melt and the Thanksgiving Sub.

Does the return of the muscular sandwich mean that the light lunch is in eclipse? Not necessarily. Shaich believes that the mass market is breaking into segments and that these segments are growing farther apart.

One segment of the population wants food that's "hot and heavy," he says; others want food that is "cool and light."

Tufts University nutritionist Jeanne P. Goldberg also sees a "dichotomizing of the population"; while some people dine sensibly on roughage and high fiber, others still want "red meat in large portions," she says.

In fact, the resurgence of red meat may partly explain why steakhouses are a hot restaurant trend, says Robert M. Derrington, a restaurant analyst for Equitable Securities Corp.

While one segment of the population is steaming its vegetables and another segment is ordering 24-ounce T-bone steaks, the biggest segment of all may be made up of folks flip-flopping back forth, eating a virtuous bibb salad one night and rewarding themselves with a pizza pigout the next.

Such behavior amuses Europeans, Shaich says. "How do you explain a person who jogs in the morning and then has a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke for dinner?" he asks.

Such behavior hardly surprises Richard K. Hendrie, senior marketing vice president of Daka International Inc., the Danvers, Mass. company that operates the Fuddruckers chain of hamburger restaurants. Consumers today, he says, have an "ambivalent-schizoid" attitude toward food.