The face of fast food is no longer the hue of neon-orange Kraft American cheese. It’s getting a makeover of greens, reds and purples — vibrant signs of healthier, local ingredients.
While the average drive-through menu is still a far cry from what you’d get at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill Farm or Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen, some familiar chain restaurants are introducing new menus filled with more nutritious, balanced meals and higher-quality foods.
Call it an ah-ha moment — or the fact that demands are changing — but fast food chains are trying to keep up. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the number of Americans following a gluten-free diet hit 3.1 million (five percent of the population) in 2016. That’s more than triple what it was in 2009. And with new dietary guidelines that limit calories from added sugars, more people are demanding better customization and transparency about where their foods come from. But are these fast food and fast-casual outposts doing enough to win healthy eaters over? We sneak behind the counter to find out.
Can You Have Clean “Fast Foods?”
As more people are eating cleaner diets, fast food chains are using fewer processed ingredients and more sustainable sourcing practices. Taco Bell announced in 2015 that they would remove all artificial colors and flavors from their foods, as well as trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. The brand also partnered with Missy Schaaphok, RDN, to develop new menus with more vegetarian and high-protein options. Similarly, McDonald’s has made it a goal to serve 100 percent more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy or whole grains in their menu by 2020.
But of all the drive-thru giants, Wendy’s took their motto of delivering fresh food with real ingredients one step further this year. In February, the global fast-food chain announced it would partner with food suppliers to use 20 percent smaller birds for their chicken sandwiches. That means committing to antibiotic-free chickens by end of year (some farmers rely on antibiotics to help animals gain weight) and employing a team of animal welfare experts to monitor the amount of nutritional feed suppliers give their chickens. According to Lori Estrada, Vice President of Culinary Innovation at Wendy’s, animal welfare experts are also there to help ensure that the chickens have access to clean water and adequate room to grow.
You might taste the difference, too. “The choice to use smaller birds helped improve the tenderness and juiciness of Wendy’s chicken across its grilled, spicy and homestyle sandwiches,” Estrada says. As a result, she says they were able to cut back on the salt. For those keeping track on the go, that’s 16 percent less sodium in all grilled chicken salads and 18 percent less sodium in the grilled chicken sandwich.
Aside from improving the quality of their chicken, Wendy’s is taking steps to include salads with seasonal fruits and veggies. They newly added Strawberry Mango Chicken Salad packs 39 grams of protein, complete with freshly sliced mango and strawberries, feta cheese, sunflower seeds and all-white meat grilled chicken. The last description you’d expect in a fast food salad, right?
Let Them Have (Sprouted) Bread
Fast casual eateries are making noticeable changes, too. Panera Bread, a chain that prides itself on hearty, artisanal breads, recently revamped their sandwiches to include sprouted breads. Think: sprouted-grain flat bagels made with sprouted wheat, spelt, rye and oats. (And no, they’re not available as bread bowls.)
“Our sandwiches are smaller portions now and offer 15 grams of whole grains,” says Sara Burnett, Panera Bread’s Director of Wellness. “They’re very fresh, fill you up and give you the satisfaction of a sandwich.”
Panera has also launched three new menus: plant based, nutrient packed and protein rich. Burnett says that many of Panera Bread’s customers have become more health-conscious, and these new options are designed to for just that. “The plant-based menu has vegan offerings, while the nutrient-packed menu gives you meals that have the perfect balance of fat, carbs, sodium and protein. The protein-rich menu gives you dishes with 20 percent of your daily value of protein,” Burnett says.
Panera’s salads aren’t just there for appearances, either. “We’re improving the nutrient-density of the ingredients by expanding our greens. You’ll not only find romaine lettuce, but kale, radicchio and Swiss chard in our salads.” The chain partnered with Mitzi Dulan, RD, and Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, to create their own Panera salad as a nutritious option for people.
What It Means to Eat Local
While global fast food chains attempt to make fast changes, it’s not without a new crop of competition. Smaller, regional shops like By CHLOE, Sweetgreen and Dig Inn have all popped up with fresh ideas and menu offerings. Their focus: locally sourced ingredients.
This year, Phil Winser, founder of the renowned farm-to-table restaurant, The Fat Radish, decided it was high time to make fresh, seasonal meals more affordable. Enter Tyme, a new fast food restaurant that offers healthy dishes made with locally sourced ingredients for $10 a jar (yes, transparency is key).
Tyme is currently available through UberEats in Manhattan and select WeWork locations and Equinox gyms. You can also grab Tyme on the go at its new capsule in the heart of Times Square, which is open through December. Winser plans to expand nationwide with co-founder Felipe Hallot, who has held global roles at Burger King. “We came together under the shared vision of improving people’s eating habits and making the concept of farm to table more accessible,” he says.
But what if you tire of salads and grain bowls? Eating healthier and local doesn’t mean you have to replace the foods you love. Ali LaRaia, executive chef and co-founder of the new fast-casual Italian restaurant, The Sosta, says, “We want people to realize that pasta doesn’t have to be the overindulgence that many Americans think. It can be part of a healthy, balanced meal.” That’s why LaRaia designed her menu to pair pastas with veggie sides, like the roasted cauliflower and Giardiniera (aka Italian veggie relish).
The inspiration for the Sosta actually came out of her travels in Italy. “In Italy, they have autogrills, which are essentially gas stations that serve really high-quality, local, seasonal food. You can get everything from an espresso to a salad cheaply.”
Staying true to authentic Italian flavors, LaRaia swaps in healthy ingredients to give dishes the same comforting taste. The pasta is made fresh in-house every day. If you have special dietary needs or food allergies, you’re in luck. There are gluten-free options, alternative grains and zucchini noodles.
Healthy Fast Food for All
As fast eats get healthier, it’s still fair to note that most of these healthier outposts are testing the waters in big cities like New York and Los Angeles first. While drive-through menus show glimmers of kale and beetroot noodles, they won’t take a complete 180-degree turn overnight. As Winser puts it, “We’re not trying to reinvent the hamburger. We really want to make the language of food relatable and take flavors people are familiar with and understand.”