Dr. Rebecca Mullis
In Chattanooga -- home to potentially diet-demolishing products like Little Debbie snack cakes, Krystal burgers and Moonpies -- more leaders in the food industry are recognizing that patrons want not only great taste, but jeans that fit.
Some local food manufacturers and restaurants are responding to a belt- and budget-busting obesity epidemic with products geared to make healthy living a little easier for their customers, mirroring a national trend toward health consciousness, said health advocates.
"This is part of the whole movement right now," said Joan Randall, administrative director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Obesity & Metabolism/Diabetes Center.
The "cultural shift" within the food industry corresponds with growing recognition in both government and the health care sector that obesity is a problem that can't be ignored, she said.
Staff Photo by Dan Henry The Panera off of Market St. in downtown Chattanooga is now offering a barbecue chicken salad.
At a national level, a partnership between more than 90 food retailers, food and drink manufacturers, trade organizations and nonprofits is aiming to reduce obesity and making it easier to live healthily. Sixteen food and drink manufacturers who are members of the group, called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, have pledged to trim the number of calories in the marketplace by 1.5 trillion by the end of 2015.
Members -- including Kellogg, Nestlé and PepsiCo -- will cut portion sizes and develop lower-calorie products, or alter recipes to cut calories in existing products, according to the foundation.
Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden, last month became one of the most recent new members of the foundation.
Those working to help reverse worrisome obesity trends welcome the engagement of those in the food industry.
"I believe the food industry has to be a full partner with us in this endeavor," said Dr. Rebecca Mullis, head of the department of food and nutrition at the University of Georgia. "It doesn't mean everything they produce has to be healthy; it means there needs to be a lot of healthy options, not just one or two."
Local restaurateurs say demand for natural and healthy products is sky-high.
Wholesome and quick meals are the major selling point of Chattanooga-based Mojo Burrito products, made from natural ingredients. Owner Eve Williams said she avoids low-fat products that often compensate by adding MSG or sodium.
"The fat you get from us is going to be good for you," she said.
The demand for nutritious food products has kept the restaurant thriving in a difficult economy, she said.
"The fact that we're healthy is helping us grow in this market, rather than flounder," she said. "It blows my mind how many people that eat here eat here three to five days a week."
National health reform legislation requires restaurants with 20 or more sites to display caloric information on menu boards and drive-throughs.
More than 20 states have considered mandates to require some chain restaurants to display calories and nutrition information on menu boards and menus, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group promoting nutrition and food safety. Tennessee introduced such a bill in 2009, which did not pass.
Many restaurants that operate locally, including Chili's, Logan's Roadhouse and Olive Garden, have menus that highlight heart-healthy or diet-friendly items that can be a huge help for customers trying to count their calories, said local dietitian Kelly Lytle.
"It's about time," she said. "For me, it's kind of exciting. After doing this for 16, 17 years, it's been a real frustrating ride. It just had to almost get to a crisis" before health-conscious menus became common.
The company that makes Little Debbie snack cakes -- McKee Foods, based in Ooltewah -- actually experimented with changing cake recipes to make some of their Little Debbies more healthy, but consumers did not respond well to the new taste, said company spokesman Mike Gloeker.
* Hamilton County: 28.6 percent
* Bledsoe County, Tenn.: 32.3 percent
* Catoosa County, Ga.: 29.5 percent
* Walker County, Ga.: 28.5 percent
A couple of years ago, the company chose instead to bring out a line of "petite" snack cakes with 100 calories or less, but still the sweet taste of a Little Debbie cake, he said.
"All things are good in moderation," he said. "We know that a Little Debbie snack is an indulgence. We wouldn't say sit down and eat an entire carton. ... (By issuing smaller portions,) we still can give them Little Debbie and they can still have their indulgence and be aware of what they're eating."
Krystal has long offered smaller portions than the typical burger joint, such as the "Krystal Burger, Krystal Pup and Krystal Chik in addition to its low-carb breakfast scrambler and lower caloric side item, the garden salad," said Brad Wahl, vice president of marketing for the Krystal Co., in an e-mail.
Although the focus on health and offering nutritional information on menus is gaining credence slowly in the South, where distrust of regulation is prevalent, businesses are finding that profit considerations trump that philosophical resistance, Ms. Randall said.
"I don't think many of them are doing it (offering healthy choices) unless it's in their best interest to do so," she said. "If we as consumers -- moms and parents, those making the choices -- if we demand healthier products they'll give us what we're demanding."
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Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...