Mary Shedden of the Tampa Tribune writes that Americans love healthier food choices, but if a veggie burger isn’t on the value menu and a double cheeseburger is, guess which one they’re going to choose?

That disconnect is the resounding message for restaurants across the country, say market analysts watching the public’s buying habits. Mentally, customers want healthier food, but pocketbooks win out in these tough economic times.

“The flashy $5 deals outshine everything else going on,” says Maria Caranfa, a food service analyst for Chicago-based Mintel.

Two years ago, freshness and quality were high priorities for both consumers and the restaurants that wanted their business. Menus at the top 31 fast-food chains were increasingly promoting items with a natural, lean, light, low-carb, and low- or no-fat focus.

But once the economy soured, a push for nutritional claims got sidelined, and dropped nearly 3 percent in just one year.

Caranfa says the current trend doesn’t mean healthier foods aren’t popular. A 2009 survey of American adults shows that their top priority for food was that it be fresh and safe. Four of the top five food qualities were health-centered, ranging from freshness (69 percent) to low-fat or low-calorie (28 percent).

Ironically, 32 percent of those polled wanted to see large portions on their plate.

Mintel’s annual review of fast-food restaurants says that so far, restaurants have made fairly minor improvements in their push for more business. Examples of some of the changes made include Taco Bell’s offer of “reduced-fat sour cream” on a triple steak burrito, and Chick-fil-A’s chargrilled chicken wrap with a “light dressing.”

Dino Lambridis, co-founder of the Evos restaurant chain, says diners who want real nutritional improvements won’t be fooled by shallow nutritional marketing.

“I think the consumer has gotten jaded about all these claims,” he says.

That’s part of the reason why Mintel predicts fast-food restaurants will get more serious in the future. Caranfa says chains likely will incorporate affordability with sustainability, which means they will use more natural and local foods, creating simpler meals and more eco-friendly business practices.

“In order for restaurants to become more profitable in the future,” Caranfa says, “they need to think about how they respond to the environment.”

An example: Drive-up and tater-tot mecca Sonic is now using cage-free eggs for its breakfast items.