Pamela Johnson tries to watch what she eats.
The Bridgeport, Connecticut, woman is a diabetic and tries to be careful about her fast-food intake. She was munching on a seafood salad sandwich from Subway on a recent afternoon. Subway's website lists the sandwich as containing 410 calories, but it's a fairly sedate offering compared to some of the "novelty" or "extreme" concepts being unveiled at other fast-food chains.
Pizza Hut, for example, recently made headlines by unveiling a new pizza, available only in the United Kingdom, with a crust stuffed with hot dogs. The chain also launched a "Crown Crust" pizza in the Middle East, in which the "crust" is mainly a ring of mini cheeseburger.
Some estimates put that pizza's calorie count at more than 470 a slice.
In this country, Pizza Hut has brought back its "Cheesy Bites" pizza, in which the pie is ringed with mozzarella stuffed bread rolls. That contains 370 calories a slice. There have been some other jaw-dropping offerings in this country, including KFC's "Double Down," a sandwich in which the "bread" was essentially two pieces of fried chicken. The restaurant's website lists the item as containing 540 calories, 32 grams of fat and 1,380 milligrams of sodium.
Let's not forget that Taco Bell recently released a neon orange Dorito Loco taco, which boasted a crust flavored like Doritos. At 170 calories for a regular taco and 200 for a "supreme," it's almost diet food compared to the Pizza Hut offerings.
Restaurants don't seem prepared to stop offering these items any time soon. Pizza Hut spokeswoman Lisa Beachy said these specialty offerings are largely a way to allow the chain's chefs to exercise their creativity.
However, to some, these offerings seem to be in bad taste in a country where obesity has become a national health crisis. According to the American Heart Association, 149.3 million Americans age 20 or older are overweight or obese. Among children 2 to 19, about 1 in 3 are overweight and obese.
David M. Brady, vice provost of the University of Bridgeport Division of Health Sciences, said he has long been bemused by some of the gimmicks used by fast food chains.
"What's always gotten me is that (at some pizza chains), your order comes with cheesy bread," said Brady, also director of the UB's Human Nutrition Institute. "Isn't pizza already cheesy bread? Do you really need more cheesy bread to go with it?"
Annika Stensson, media relations director for the National Restaurant Association, said competition is at the heart of these extreme offerings. "In general, the restaurant business is a competitive one, and each restaurant needs to distinguish itself from the competition," she said.
Offering more nutritious items at chain restaurants has been a goal of the Restaurant Association. Last year, about 15,000 eateries representing 19 chains nationwide announced they would add healthier items to their children's menus, as part of the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining's new Kids LiveWell program.
Burger King was one of the fast food chains that vowed to offer lower calorie children's meals and more emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Other chains making a similar pledge include Denny's, Outback Steakhouse, Chili's, Cracker Barrel and IHOP.
Given efforts like these, the escalation of unhealthy "specialty items" could be an attempt by food chains to stay in touch with their core customers, said Dana White, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical faculty at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. For instance, though Burger King has started offering apple fries in its kids' meals, the chain is also testing a "bacon sundae" in its Nashville market. "It's a way to market yourself to a broader group," White said.