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This may go down as the year fast food spun out of control.

Back in April of this year, KFC debuted a greasy new breadless sandwich featuring bacon and tons of cheese stuffed between two boneless fried chicken cutlets. Buns were no longer part of the sandwich equation. KFC called it the Double Down, but they might as well have named it The Revolution. Needless to say, the media ate up the story. The New York Times taste-tested the product, labeling it “a disgusting meal,” while Stephen Colbert referred to the sandwich as “deep-fried madness.”

“The Double Down set a whole new standard in the ridiculousness of these fast food creations,” says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and expert on all things pop culture. “What the nuclear bomb was to warfare, the Double Down is to fast food. It’s almost like a parody.”

This interpretation may sound over the top, but consider the seemingly never-ending battle for media and consumer attention that fast food companies have waged in the months since KFC unveiled the new meal.

Weeks after the Double Down was released, IHOP turned out an extreme dish of pancakes stuffed with cheesecake, which The Miami New Times described as apocalyptic. This was followed in June by a cheeseburger from Friendly’s stuffed between two grilled cheese sandwiches.

The next month, Carl’s Jr. began testing a new footlong burger in a few stores throughout Orange County and Indianapolis. And, as if to emphasize the chain’s ability to turn out products that would put the fear of God in your arteries, Carl’s Jr. this week re-released a charbroiled burger topped with a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. The meal originally appeared for a limited time in 2006.

Why are so many extremely decadent fast food products popping up this year? And what makes this year different than the others?

“The restaurant industry has had a very difficult time in the last year and a half, and these companies are in competition to get heard above the fray,” says Harry Balzer, Chief Industry Analyst and VP of NPD Group, a market research firm. “They are under great pressure to get their promotions noticed.”

Fast food chains in particular have suffered during the economic downturn. Every new financial quarter seems to bring bad news. Sales from kids’ meals dropped by 11% in 2008; fewer Americans bought fast food breakfasts last year since fewer were heading to work in the morning, and sales of fast food staples like french fries suffered a slow decline throughout much of the last decade.

In fact, according to the NPD Group, the number of consumers dining at fast food stores in June of this year had dropped 2%, compared to June 2009. This comes after the number already declined by 1% the year before that.

In seeing this trend, fast food companies initially seemed to focus on a different approach to attract customers. Last year, chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell announced plans to expand their dollar menu offerings in order to lure cash-strapped consumers.  But if 2009’s strategy was to focus on the price tag to lure new customers, 2010’s strategy so far seems to be focusing on dishes that can excite fast food enthusiasts so they’ll keep coming back for more. What better way to do that than with a breadless fried chicken sandwich or a footlong burger?

“These dishes are aimed at a particular demographic: young men,” says Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. “I’m not sure the appetite for this sort of thing has increased as much as marketers have discovered that appealing to that demographic moves products.”

Similarly, Beth Mansfield, a spokesperson for CKE restaurants, which owns Carl’s Jr., told us that the chain is mainly focused on putting out dishes that attract young males ages 18-34, or as she refers to them, “young hungry guys.” As an added perk, she says the company has taken notice that products like the footlong burger tend to generate their own publicity, whether or not the company advertises it heavily.

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“We are not setting out to make something monstrous, and we don’t put out products just for the sake of making something big,” Mansfield says. “The goal is to make something that’s delicious first. If it happens to be big or noteworthy, then it just seems to resonate well with our core demographic.”

Likewise, KFC claims to have produced the Double Down mainly to attract a crowd of loyal fast food eaters.

“The Double Down came about from some consumer research we had done. A group of fast food fans, primarily young guys, were telling us they had to order two chicken sandwiches in order to get filled up,” says Rick Maynard, a spokesperson for KFC. “So the issue was how to make a chicken sandwich that would fill up even the most serious sandwich eater.”

The Double Down proved so popular that 10 million were sold in the first month alone, and according to Maynard, KFC plans to release another round of advertising to promote the sandwich this fall, starting Sept. 6. “It’s again going to be our feature national product,” he says.

The success of these products comes at an odd time in our country’s culinary history, where more consumers and legislators are shifting toward healthier foods.  Even during the recession, consumers continued to flock to organic and natural foods. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has warned Americans to limit their salt intake, and public figures like Michelle Obama are pushing healthy eating habits, particularly among children.

Both KFC and Carls Jr. emphasized in interviews with MainStreet that they have diverse menus featuring low-calorie options, though as Carls Jr.’s spokesperson openly admits, “those items don’t sell as well and we are in the business of making money as well as making big delicious burgers. So we make what sells.”

Not surprisingly, this has upset many health policy advocates around the country.

“These companies want to talk like they care about nutrition but their behavior says otherwise,” says Kelly Brownell, a professor at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Instead, they are finding yet more ways to add fat, sugar and salt into the American diet.”

Brownell and his fellow advocates hope that one day, we may be able to change what consumers eat at these chains and fight the tide of what he sees as “evermore massive portions of unhealthy foods.” He hopes to introduce a tax on sweetened beverages and enforce new restrictions on what companies can advertise to children.

“I don’t think you could ever regulate the sale of these foods, but you can get involved with regulating the marketing and the pricing of them,” Brownell says.

Some fast food franchises have chosen to stay out of the extreme fast food craze for the most part. Wendy’s is testing “natural” French fries in some locations and McDonald’s is investing billions to make its restaurants more upscale, and expanded its menus to include more salads, smoothies and better quality meats. As it turns out, this formula may actually be working. Of all the major fast food chains, McDonald’s had the biggest growth in customers returning to their stores last year.

Still, according to those familiar with the industry, you shouldn’t expect the rest of the fast food restaurants to follow in McDonald’s footsteps any time soon, and ultimately even the most extreme fast food offerings may be just a way to boost sales of the staples.

“The top three things that people ordered at fast food restaurants when I started in this business in 1978 were carbonated soft drinks, French fries and a hamburger,” says Balzer, the industry analyst. “And that hasn’t changed since. Fast food industries do have to interpret what they believe is contemporary, but aating habits are still about taste issues. All of these companies are just trying to play both sides.”

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