As McDonald's and Wendy's introduce healthier options amid rising obesity levels and a general interest in healthier foods, some fastfood companies have been going in the opposite direction, introducing ever more calorific and fat-laden burgers in a bid to win customers. And these so-called "big food" products are proving surprisingly popular, as David Robertson reports.

Despite "fastfood made me fat" lawsuits and negative publicity from films like Super Size Me and books like Fast Food Nation, the American food industry continues to tempt consumers with massively calorific products. These "big food" products have become surprisingly popular given the recent backlash against the fastfood industry.

The introduction of these new products is creating a split among US retailers as fastfood chains move in opposite directions. Some chains are concentrating their marketing and product development on healthier products like salads and fruit bowls. Others, however, have decided to buck the health-food trend and are introducing burgers and sandwiches with more calories in a single meal than the average consumer needs in a day. How these divergent strategies ultimately play out will determine how the fastfood giants manage menus around the world.

Western governments are becoming increasingly concerned about the obesity epidemic and are proposing wide-ranging sanctions against companies that sell unhealthy food. In the UK there has even been talk of a "fat tax" to bump up prices and discourage consumers. In the US, the Department of Agriculture recently introduced a new food pyramid as part of on-going moves to improve diet education.

This has put tremendous pressure on the fastfood chains to move towards healthier products and all companies now offer salads - although the quality is often dubious and the dressings can contain as many calories as a burger.

Companies like McDonald's and Wendy's have gone even further and been at the forefront of product innovation. Wendy's, for example, is heavily marketing its fruit bowl - fruit being an area that fastfood chains have largely overlooked.

Healthier choices

Bob Bertini, a Wendy's spokesman, said: "We believe in giving customers more choice particularly with nutritious food as we see this as a big opportunity for us. Fruit has been neglected by many chains but the pre-cut fruit market is worth US$300m in supermarkets. We see this as a very viable opportunity and we are now selling more than a million pounds of fruit a week."

McDonald's has had other reasons for introducing healthier menu items. A number of lawsuits have been filed against the company from people claiming its products made them obese. (A judge recently reopened a claim from two New York teenagers and the result of this case will have a large influence on what companies put on their menus in the future.)

As the largest and highest profile fastfood company in the world, McDonald's is under constant scrutiny and its range of healthier products are designed to counter criticism that it promotes obesity. And, prompted by fears that governments would start banning fastfood advertising on children's television, McDonald's launched a worldwide ad campaign to promote the benefits of healthy eating.

The Monster Thickburger

But while some companies are developing new healthier options, others are going in the opposite direction. Hardee's has been the focus of a huge amount of publicity after launching its Thickburger menu, and the Monster Thickburger in particular. The Monster is a 1,420 calorie behemoth with 107 grams of fat. It contains two one-third-pound beef patties, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise.

Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said when the Monster was launched last November: "We first labelled Hardee's Thickburger as "food porn" when it was some 200 calories smaller than the Monster. If the old Thickburger was food porn, the new Monster Thickburger is the fastfood equivalent of a snuff film."

But Hardee's is unrepentant, claiming that it is giving customers what they want and its product developers are now working on yet more calorie-loaded items. The Thickburger concept certainly appears to be popular. Hardee's has posted 21 straight months of sales increases since the menu was first introduced and in December it reported a 7.3% increase in sales for the previous year. This has allowed Hardee's parent company, CKR, to cut its debt from $628m to $259.6m and turn the chain into the big growth story of recent years.

Moral duty

Brad Haley, CKR executive vice-president for marketing, told just-food: "Our goal with the introduction of the Thickburger menu was to target the quality of "sit-down restaurant" burgers.  That not only meant that we had to make the ingredients better, as we did with our choice to use 100% Angus beef, but to make the burgers bigger like you would find in sit-down restaurants.  So, quality, not size, was, and still is, our objective."

Despite this stated objective, Hardee's products are most popular with young males for whom quantity does matter. They want the maximum amount of food for the least amount of money and fastfood chains like Hardee's are offering it. Hardee's points out that it does offer healthier options but there can be no doubt that its success in the last couple of years has been built on "big food" and not salads.

However, the company does not believe it has a moral duty to limit the calories it offers to consumers, many of whom are already obese (unlike, say, a barman who cannot serve more alcohol to a drunk). Haley says: "People have many choices regarding where to go to eat and what to eat in any given restaurant when they get there.  We don't support the regulation of what people can or cannot choose from to eat."

The bigger the better

Having seen the success Hardee's has had attracting young male consumers (the lifeblood of the fastfood industry), others are jumping on the "big food" bandwagon. Burger King launched its Enormous Omelette Sandwich last month which offers 730 calories and 47 grams of fat for breakfast - more than the signature Whopper burger.

BK has also launched an Angus Bacon and Cheese Steak Burger (710 cals); Taco Bell offers a half-pound beef and potato burrito (530 cals); Culver's sells a Jumbo Bacon ButterBurger Deluxe (1,100 cals); and Carls Jr, part of the same company as Hardee's, has introduced the Double Six Dollar Burger with a pound of meat (1,400 cals).

Although McDonald's, BK and Wendy's do offer big versions of their current burgers, consumers seem to like these speciality sandwiches - and the bigger the better.

So, will chains like McDonald's spend less time developing healthier foods and start introducing their own "snuff" burgers to get a slice of this growing market? And can they risk doing so given the potential backlash? How McDonald's, BK and Wendy's resolve this dilemma will likely dictate fastfood sales for many years to come.