Healthy Fast Food

by Jesi Solomon
February 2005

A Closer Look Inside

Big Mac® Bun : Enriched bleached flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, reduced iron), water, high fructose corn syrup, sesame seeds, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, yeast, contains less than 2 % of each of the following: salt, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, calcium silicate, wheat gluten, soy flour, baking soda, emulsifier (mono- and diglycerides, diacetyl tartaric acid esters of fatty acids, ethanol, sorbitol, polysorbate 20, potassium propionate), sodium stearoyl lactylate, dough conditioner (corn starch, ammonium chloride, ammonium sulfate, calcium peroxide, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, enzymes), calcium propionate (preservative).


Au Bon Pain Sundried Tomato Bread: Organic Wheat Flour, Water, Sundried Tomatoes, Sea Salt, Yeast, Herbs of Provence, Malt Powder, Garlic Powder, Ascorbic Acid.

It's been almost a year since "Super Size Me" hit theaters, serving as a wake-up call to Americans. In it, director Morgan Spurlock filmed himself eating McDonald's 3 times a day for only one month (his doctors recommended he quit long before that), during which time he gained 25 pounds. Obesity contributes to heart disease, the leading cause of death in America, and is rising at a dangerous rate. Many fast food chains have taken this into consideration and are offering healthier, fresher fare than traditional quick service restaurants.

An Epidemic
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) lists obesity under chronic diseases and conditions right alongside cancer. With 60% of the country overweight, the CDC acknowledges that the fast food industry has contributed to Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and increased risk of stroke are just a few of the health hazards resulting from obesity. A 15-year study just released revealed that eating fast food two or more times a week led to ten pounds of weight gain, and doubled the risk for diabetes. While many Americans continue to gorge daily on fat-laden fast-foods, others are making efforts to help those diners make better decisions while eating outside the home. A New Jersey Assemblyman has introduced a bill, currently pending in the Assembly of Health and Human Service Committee, that could possibly move later this month. The bill would require that food establishments with 20 or more locations (chains, basically) clearly display the calorie content of each menu item served either on the packaging or menu board. Grams of saturated and trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium levels would be available upon request. The point would be to encourage customers to make healthier decisions while eating out. Seeing the calorie content of the massive burger one is craving may discourage one from ordering it and opting, instead, for a salad. Few fast food restaurants and almost no traditional chains can tout products made fresh daily with fresh ingredients; but some healthier establishments have emerged, such as Chipotle Grill and Au Bon Pain.

Chefs Respond
In 1993, Steve Ells, a classically trained chef, founded Chipotle Grill. It started as a humble burrito shop with a simple concept: “Offer a simple menu of great food prepared fresh each day.” Ells’ sales model was successful because he ensured his food was fast and fresh. Now Chipotle Grill has over 40 restaurants throughout the nation. While Chipotle offers some items that are high in fat and calories, there are still benefits to their food. Chipotle Grill uses fresh unprocessed ingredients, which are an important source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients that traditional fast food items lack. Chipotle serves romaine lettuce, a dark leafy green eight times higher in vitamin A than the iceberg shreds that McDonald’s uses on their sandwiches. Chipotle also uses organic, free-range meat unlike the traditional chains that serve meat products loaded with chemicals and preservatives.

Thomas John, formerly of the acclaimed Indian-fusion restaurant Mantra in Boston, was recently appointed executive chef of Au Bon Pain, a New England-based bakery chain established in 1978. He explains how this company maintains concern for their consumers’ health. “Au Bon Pain is always trying to find out how to make a product healthier. We have a nutrition board including doctors and public health personnel that meets every quarter, and we participate in a round table with the Harvard School of Public Health.” Au Bon Pain rejects using dangerous trans-fatty acids and bakes its bread with only organic ingredients. Each store has a “nutrition kiosk” that provides patrons with a nutritional breakdown of every item on their menu.

Ferrán Adrià, of El Bulli fame, recently opened Fast Good in Madrid, Spain. It’s a fast food restaurant that serves quality fresh, local ingredients, without preservatives. Some food is prepared fresh to order including hand-cut fries cooked in olive oil and burgers made from hormone-free veal. These quality ingredients make the meal a little more expensive (almost $10 US for a burger with fries). Healthy fast food is becoming a necessity in Europe now. The obesity epidemic is spreading throughout the continent as American culture, with its high-fat, high-calorie fast food diet, continues to influence Europe. Thirty percent of Spanish 10-year-olds are overweight; double the 15% for American children of that age. Fast Good, which has only been open a year, plans to expand to South America and then to the US within the next 2 years.

Corporations Hedge Their Bets
Facing increasing competition from healthier quick service restaurants, McDonald’s Corporation acquired a minority interest in Chipotle Grill in 1998. By 2002, McDonald’s Corp. had taken a 90% stake in the fast and fresh burrito chain. Even in the face of criticism from the government, health advocates, and consumers, McDonald’s unleashed over 6 ½ thousand new stores over the same 4-year period. McDonald’s also responded to the growing demand for healthier fast food option by introducing a line of 4 garden salads containing mixed greens, and romaine lettuce instead of their typical iceberg.

The growing trend of healthy, fresh, quick service food is a step towards stemming the international obesity epidemic. With the influence of accomplished chefs, smaller chains that insist on using quality ingredients-like Chipotle Grill, Au Bon Pain, and Fast Good-are the future of fast food.