QSRs take on ‘better burger’ with better-for-you offerings

As health and quality concerns become increasingly prominent among consumers, QSR burger chains are looking to fight off negative health perceptions. Burgers are typically seen as indulgent, with health concerns being a key deterrent for consumption. Consequently, healthful burgers have their appeal; 37% of Millennials say they try to opt for healthful options when ordering a burger.

What constitutes a better-for-you burger, though, is constantly evolving as health definitions move past the nutrition label and towards ingredient quality, sourcing and the use of additives. In fact, two-in-five consumers say they are more concerned about food additives now than they were two years ago. This has resulted in a greater push for operator transparency as consumers want to use this information to determine which items fit their definition of healthy.

Technomic’s Burger Consumer Trend Report asked consumers to rank leading burger chains on the healthfulness of their burgers. On average, 38% of consumers say the leading QSR chains do a good or very good job of offering healthful burgers, compared to about half of consumers who say the same for fast-casual (51%) and full-service restaurants (52%). Within the QSR subsegment, In-N-Out (50%) and Carl’s Jr (50%) rank as the top two chains in terms of burger healthfulness, serving as examples of major QSR burger operators who have been able to establish a more healthful perception of their burgers.

In-N-Out

In-N-Out’s reputation is built on quality, and they market their burgers as never-frozen patties made from premium, preservative-free beef cuts. The company also boasts in-house butchers, which may please consumers looking for fresh, high-quality and minimally-processed beef. Insights from Technomic’s Consumer Trend Reports may point to why In-N-Out’s burgers are as seen as more healthful than their competitors’ offerings: 47% say beef is more healthful when it’s premium and 80% say food is more healthful when it’s preservative-free.

In-N-Out

Carl’s Jr

While In-N-Out has embraced a premium positioning among fast-food burger brands, Carl’s Jr. has taken a “natural” approach. In late 2014, Carl’s Jr. released the All-Natural Burger, which features a grass-fed, free-range beef patty that is antibiotic-, steroid- and hormone-free. The addition of this item may help Carl’s Jr. keep up with consumers’ ever-changing health definitions, as nearly two-thirds of consumers believe beef is more healthful when it’s natural (65%) or grass-fed (63%).

Carl’s Jr

Healthful eating, in the traditional sense, used to invoke salads, fruits and low-calorie options. However, as consumers become increasingly wary of GMOs, artificial flavors and food additives, healthful eating has taken on a more holistic definition. Consumers will increasingly look for natural ingredients as a signal of health, and the healthfulness of indulgent items such as burgers, pizza and soda will be judged by the quality of their ingredients. As fast-casual burger chains continue to steal share, QSRs looking to compete will follow these quality and health trends to keep consumers, especially younger consumers, interested. Satisfying these demands may allow QSRs to shift the focus back to convenience and cost, where they still hold a distinct advantage over their competitors.

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Charles Winship

Charles Winship is a research analyst at Technomic, Inc. in Chicago. He works on the firm’s Consumer Trend Reports, a series of annual studies that provides operators and suppliers with a comprehensive guide to the menu and consumer trends impacting various restaurant segments and menu categories in the U.S. and Canada.

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