“Healthy” is not usually the first word that comes to mind when you think of fast food. Yet in the past few years, a number of chain restaurants have launched initiatives focused on offering healthier food choices.
These campaigns — which are promoted by an accompanying advertising campaign — include reducing the use of antibiotics, removing artificial flavors, and more.
The announcements, however, have not been met with universal support. Critics have questioned the obvious PR motivations, a lack of disclosure about scientific findings on ingredients, and the possibility that restaurants are focusing on minor changes instead of overarching solutions.
Still, the initiatives may signal a positive turn toward greater health consciousness and serve as a barometer of our cultural concerns about food quality.
Here is a selection of recent initiatives:
- In 2013, Chipotle became the first chain restaurant to identify menu items containing genetically modified organisms. Last year, the company announced that it has stopped using GMOs in its food. The restaurant’s commitment to “food with integrity” resulted in a carnitas shortage in 2015, when a pork supplier was found to violate Chipotle’s animal-welfare standards. (For further information on GMO crops to avoid, see “The Top GMO Crops to Avoid (Slideshow).”)
- Panera Bread, dubbed America’s healthiest fast food restaurant by Health.com, will remove all artificial food additives from its menu by the end of 2016, the company says. More than 150 ingredients are affected by the change, such as the caramel coloring used in its roast beef. (For more on food dyes, see “The Truth About Artificial Food Colorings.”)
- Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, both operated by Yum! Brands Inc., are getting rid of artificial flavors and colors. The new policy affects more than 95 percent of Taco Bell’s food items, including its nacho cheese, which will no longer contain yellow No. 6 dye — an artificial coloring that requires warning labels in the European Union.
- Starting in spring 2015, McDonald’s restaurants in the United States began shifting toward using only chickens raised without antibiotics important in human medicine; the move will take place over the course of two years. In addition, the country’s approximately 14,000 McDonald’s will offer milk options from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST. (To learn more about the overuse of antibiotics in food, see “Invasion of the Superbugs.”)
- Chick-fil-A is also putting an antibiotic-free program in place for chickens served, with a projected completion date in 2019. Boston Market similarly states that its chicken has no added steroids or hormones.
- After negative social-media campaigns brought the issue to public light, Subway announced in 2014 that it would no longer use azodicarbonamide in its bread. The whitening agent and dough conditioner — which is also used in some plastics like yoga mats — gives Subway’s bread its trademark fluffiness. Eating too much azodicarbonamide has been found to be bad for the kidneys. (For further information on this issue, see “Subway to remove chemical found in foamed plastics from sandwich bread.”) The sandwich chain has also said it will get rid of artificial flavors and colors.
- Dunkin Donuts announced that it will stop using the whitening agent titanium dioxide for its powdered doughnuts. The chain has also committed to sourcing only 100 percent sustainable palm oil in the United States to address the effects of palm-oil sourcing on greenhouse-gas emissions.
What’s next? For one thing, McDonald’s is reportedly experimenting with ways to add kale to its menu. The chain may begin offering kale in its salads — a healthy upgrade from iceberg lettuce — and might launch a kale smoothie.
Others are also looking at creating wholesome fast food. Opened in November 2015 in Pleasanton, Calif., the Organic Coup has been hailed as the “first USDA-certified organic fast food restaurant.” Currently, the menu is built around organic fried-chicken, with signature sandwich, wrap, and salad, but more is promised — as well as an aggressive plan for future locations. For more information, go to www.theorganiccoup.com.
Amy’s Kitchen, the family-owned maker of organic prepared frozen meals, is opening what it hopes is the first of many “healthy drive-thru” restaurants, Amy’s Drive-Thru, in Rohnert Park, Calif., near Santa Rosa. The drive-thru’s mission is to return “to the roots of American fast food, serving lovingly handcrafted food to nourish hard-working citizens, busy families and road-weary travellers.” The menu features burgers, pizzas, salads, burritos, and more using non-GMO, organic ingredients, plus offering gluten-free and vegan options. For more on the restaurant, see www.amysdrivethru.com.
TELL US: Do these changes to remove artificial flavors and ingredients affect your choice to eat from their menus?