When people are sickened from eating a cheeseburger sandwiched in the buttery lovechild of a croissant and a doughnut, is an explanation really necessary?
This week, Toronto got one: Staphylococcus aureus-laden maple bacon jam was revealed as the guilty ingredient in the Cronut burger that made more than 200 people sick at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition. Shabby fairgrounds have been hawking food that is more stunt than snack for years – deep-fried butter, anyone? – but now, food marketers are launching over-the-top creations like never before.
KFC upped its fame with the creation of the Double Down: Bacon, cheese and a viscous secret sauce sandwiched between two pieces of deep-fried chicken. Dunkin' Donuts has spruced up its morning menu offerings with bacon and eggs served in a sliced glazed doughnut. In September, Burger King is launching a burger topped with french fries – to cut down on the time-consuming process of shoving sodium and fat-rich foods down your gullet – which will cost just $1 (U.S.) And after much hype in the U.S., a taco with a shell made of nacho cheese-flavoured Doritos is coming to Taco Bell in Canada starting this long weekend.
The Montreal-based creators of the Epic Meal Time videos on YouTube, which are dedicated to the most extremely unhealthy creations, were recently tapped to help advertise the Super Bacon Cheeseburger at U.S. chain Carl's Jr.
And the trend is not limited to the fast-food industry; in April, Richmond, B.C.-based casual dining chain Boston Pizza introduced a bacon burger wrapped in a pepperoni pizza. The Pizzaburger concoction was advertised with a male-targeted campaign urging consumers to eat one for all the men throughout history who never got to enjoy such convenient gluttony. The Pizzaburger was a temporary menu feature, but it performed so well that Boston Pizza is bringing it back to restaurants permanently, starting Sept. 16. The lowly Cronut Burger was inspired by the croissant-doughnut invention of Dominique Ansel, a New York-based and Parisian-born pastry chef, and sold at his eponymous bakery.
And yet, all of this excess is happening while consumers have grown more health-conscious. It has created an odd dichotomy, as the fast-food industry introduces more novelty indulgences, but also tries to claim improvements in offering healthful foods on their menus.
According to market research from Technomic, which analyzes menu trends, in 2010-11 fast-food restaurants used the term "healthy" on their menus 86 per cent more often than the previous year's study, and "low fat" 33 per cent more. In 2013, the terms "wheat-free" and "low-cholesterol" are way up compared with last year (by 275 per cent and 200 per cent, respectively.)
In large part, it's because the industry is under fire. For example, research published this spring in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that, when judged against the USDA's Healthy Eating Index, eight fast-food chains in the U.S. had indeed improved the nutritional value of their menus over the past decade – but it also noted that the improvement was compared with a low starting point and "the overall nutritional quality of menu offerings was poor." The eight menus from 2009 and 2010 scored just 48 on the index out of a possible 100; an increase from 45 in 1997-98. The report noted the prevalence of fast food in the American diet, and pointed out that changes to their menus could have a great impact on consumer diets.
Why are these opposing trends of health and indulgence going hand in hand? There is some psychology at work.
"For some people there is a reactive element," said Brian Wansink, marketing professor and head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. "When you get a lot of people wagging fingers [about healthy eating], there are some people who will say, look here, I'm going to show that I'm not really ascribing to that. That reactance is a very real thing. It is a very easy way to act out."
The lab has researched behaviour at state fairs, observing more than 1,500 who purchase "gross foods," such as fried Twinkies. It found that, surprisingly, those people tended to be skinnier than people buying less outrageous foods. It also found that buyers tend to be either with one person of the opposite sex, or with a large group of peers; in other words, they were showing off, and acting out.
The culture has shifted so that food is now akin to a "spectator sport," said Dana McCauley, vice-president of marketing at Montreal-based frozen foods company Plats du Chef. "It's not that far from those Wipeout shows," she said. "Especially for the younger demographic. It's about the bravado."
There is another very simple explanation: Creating an alluring monstrosity is a great way to snag some free marketing.
"We got a lot of exposure, even as far away as New Zealand," Boston Pizza's executive vice-president of marketing, Steve Silverstone, said of the Pizzaburger. The last time it was on the menu, the chain saw a triple-digit increase in overall burger sales across the country. He anticipates it will soon be listed as a "BP favourite," a menu designation given to items that grab the top 30 per cent of sales.
"Food marketers are looking for traffic," he said. "We want to give people a reason to come visit. The idea is to be unique."
Novelty begets conversation, and that is incredibly important at a time when social media buzz can amplify a brand's message so powerfully.
No company knows this more than Yum Brands Inc., which owns both the KFC and Taco Bell franchises. Both the Double Down and the Doritos taco have drawn a massive amount of attention for its brands.
"It's the most talked-about taco in the world," said David Vivenes, chief marketing officer for Taco Bell and KFC in Canada. After the Doritos Locos Tacos caused a "smash sensation" for the brand last year – it now has three flavours in the U.S. – it is coming to Canada with a social media-focused campaign.
For the new campaign, agency Grip Limited decided to engrave the complaints of social media users about the product's absence here on the nacho shells. It then served the tacos to those critics, suggesting that they eat their words.
While many are quick to associate this kind of excess with the American diet, it is relevant to the $48-billion Canadian food services industry, as well. According to data released last month from market research firm The NPD Group, when not cooking for ourselves Canadians visit fast-food restaurants 64 per cent of the time. One of the best ways to compete is to create buzz for a brand.
"In the research, is the notion that when these things are done, often times the purpose is not to get people to eat them," Cornell's Prof. Wansink said. "It's just to get people in the restaurant."