The research firm Scarborough, a joint venture of the ratings barons Arbitron Inc. and The Nielsen Company, has profiled healthy consumers and then peeked into their dining habits.


It found that health-conscious consumers were dining at the same fast food outlets as the rest of us — just not in quite as great numbers. But pretty close.

Scarborough attributes this to the success of “healthy menu options,” which the consumers researchers say have caught on at what they call quick service restaurants.

For example, Scarborough found that while 43 percent of all adults in the U.S. have patronized McDonald’s in the last 30 days, so too have 36 percent of all health-conscious consumers.

Like Arbitron and Nielson, Scarborough reaches its conclusions not so much on limited survey research, but by mining massive amounts of data.  In this study, that included data on 210,000 adults over 18 years of age involving a wide variety of lifestyle, shopping and demographic categories.

Starbucks, Arby’s, Chipoltie, Chick-fil-A, Burger King, Taco Bell, Parnell Bread, Wendy’s, Subway and McDonald’s are all among the quick service restaurants that were visited in the last 30 days by at least 10 percent of the nation’s health-conscious consumers.

Scarborough defines health-conscious consumers by their habits, namely gym memberships, and preferences for buying local and organic foods. The consumer research company says 21 million Americans, about nine percent of the population, fit this description of health-conscious consumers.

Menus at quick serve restaurants have changed dramatically, the researchers say. Salads, wraps and smoothies have become ever more common fare at fast food establishments once known only for their hamburgers.  

In total, Scarborough says 74 percent of health-conscious consumers have visited a fast food restaurant for lunch in the last 30 days. In tracking the top 25 quick service restaurants, researchers found that the menu choices of health-conscious consumers were not much different than the food items selected by all adult consumers.

According to Scarborough, health-conscious consumers who ate lunch at a fast food outlet in the past 30 days were more likely to be female (58 percent) and college-educated (66 percent). Most (61 percent) are married and 41 percent have one or more children under age 17.  They are also more likely to have household incomes of $100,000 or more, compared with other fast food diners.

Scarborough also found that health-conscious consumers are 86 percent more likely to be runners or joggers, 78 percent more likely to be cyclists and 60 percent more likely to be swimmers. Nearly half (44 percent) do volunteer work.

Arbitron’s Alisa Joseph says the Scarborough study “reflects the enormous shift in the quick service restaurants’ initiative toward healthier menu options and branding.”

During the recent recession and through continued weak job and housing markets, several top fast food chains have continued to experience growth by adding healthier fare to their menus.

Scarborough’s marketing data probably won’t be enough to cause fast food critics to go away.   McDonald’s, which always seems to be under attack somewhere in its 119-country empire, is currently under fire for its locations in 22 U.S. hospitals.

The consumer group, Corporate Accountability International, objects because it says the Golden Arches are “the world’s most recognized junk food brand.”

Or, the Scarborough study suggests, maybe just a quick place to get a smoothie.