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Fast food on trend in the new year

‘Tis the season to get skinny…and fast! The mother of all New Year’s resolutions didn’t disappoint in 2010, as “lose weight” tops the list again this year with 22 percent of consumers who made resolutions looking to shed some extra pounds.

Long on top of the weight-loss trend, fast food restaurants haven’t been shy about pushing lower-calorie/less-fat versions of their standard fare. This has been a boon for consumers who don’t want to make drastic changes to eating habits that may already include fast food indulgences. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, fast food diets can actually help some people lose weight, at least in the short term, if the products provide less fat, sugar, sodium and/or fewer calories.

The latest entrant into the fast-food diet wars is Taco Bell, who recently introduced its Drive-Thru Diet, featuring seven “Fresco” menu options with fewer than nine grams of fat. The campaign stars Christine, a woman who lost 54 lbs. in part by switching to Fresco menu items. Marketing is also supported by new media elements, including an online Frescolution” pledge to eat less and exercise more, a Twitter contest and e-cards to invite friends to take the pledge. Taco Bell even joined forces with the NBA to promote the diet as part of a fit and healthy lifestyle.

The young campaign has already faced some harsh criticism, but by avoiding words like “healthy” or “weight loss,” Taco Bell is in the clear, at least from a legal standpoint. Marketing healthy foods or diets can be fraught with legal and ethical pitfalls. Below are some tips for authentically communicating your foods’ health messages:

  1. Provide the facts (even the less desirable ones): Your foods may be low in fat, but are they high in sodium? Let consumers know the whole health-related story. And be sure when using testimonials to provide your consumers with details about dietary and lifestyle habits outside of your diet.
  2. Avoid claims that aren’t substantiated with research: You could be opening yourself up to criticism, or even worse, liability if your claims are not founded on legitimate scientific research. Take the time to research your claims before slapping them on a Web site or billboard.
  3. Provide context: There’s no official definition of “health food,” so be careful if positioning foods as healthy vs. unhealthy. Instead, be upfront about the foods’ nutritional contents and how they vary from typical offerings.
  4. Engage a credible third party: Endorsement by a credible health expert can help communicate the real nutritional value of food offerings and convince skeptical consumers. Have a third-party expert serve as a spokesperson, or at least publicly sign-off on your products and promises, for your marketing campaign.
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