There are moments in life when nothing—nothing—is better than a greasy burger and fries. There are times when the idea of passing up on a supersized Big Mac meal is inconceivable, and not getting a slice of pizza after a particularly boozy night out would, honestly, be a crime against drunken humanity.
But in recent years, there has been a growing trend toward eating healthier. We’ve seen the rise of vegan and vegetarian diets, plus people are more aware of where ingredients come from and if they’re fresh or frozen. Consumer demand has even caused the fast food industry to take notice.
It’s no small feat that McDonald’s just came out with a vegan burger and has vowed to make Happy Meals healthier by 2022. And they’re not the only ones; large food brands are now trying their own versions of healthy fast food. On the flipside, healthy-first restaurants like sweetgreen, honeygrow, and by CHLOE. are expanding exponentially.
So what’s going on here? Well, for one thing, there’s been a shift in demand toward food that’s not complete garbage. And that’s good news. But the real question is, could healthy fast food ever become just fast food? Fat chance.
Fast facts on fast food
The reality is everyone loves fast food. Don’t believe us? Consider these facts: 20 million Americans eat fast food everyday. A recent study found around 80% of people ate fast food at least once in the last three weeks and income level made very little difference when it came to frequency and amount.
But the fact that fast food is so deeply entrenched in our culture and diet is causing some pretty major health consequences.
In the states, more than 25% of adults are overweight or obese, and the US has the highest rate of childhood obesity. But the rest of the world isn’t doing that great either. There are more than two billion people around the world who are overweight or obese.
So it really shouldn’t come as a shock that we’re smack in the middle of an obesity and diabetes crisis. Not to mention rates of heart disease and depression have soared thanks to poor dietary habits. And we can’t stop.
Blame your brain
The widespread love and appreciation of fast food is hardwired into us. That’s because our brains and bodies have evolved to crave the mass produced fare. So, no matter how much we may want to eat salad we will always, always want the high-calorie, sodium-laden, sugar-riddled food more. Which helps to explain why Americans get almost 70% of their calories from ultra-processed foods such as soda, packaged food, salty snacks, etc.
“When you combine our biological predilections with the economic forces that prevail today, you can understand why people love Big Macs and Whoppers,’’ Marion Nestle said in The New Yorker. “They are what our brain prefers. Evolution is not going to change that equation in the near term.”
While some people manage to ignore these cravings, one very depressing study found half of people don’t actually care what they eat. These people weren’t concerned about how healthy their food was—if it was genetically modified, organic, or whatever—they just want food.
All this means that getting everyone to switch to healthier food is verging on impossible, especially among people who need to change the most.
Experts who work with the obese find transitioning to healthier diets to be arduous. “They won’t eat broccoli instead of french fries,” Kelli Drenner, an obesity researcher at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, told The Atlantic. “You try to make even a small change to school lunches, and parents and kids revolt.” (Pour one out for Jamie Oliver‘s attempts to get schools to serve healthy meals.)
Fresh to death?
As if the prevailing unwillingness to alter one’s diet wasn’t problematic enough, there’s also flaws in how the food system is set up.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, the economies of scale are the problem — there are more big farms than local, mid-size ones, which consequently means processed food is cheaper than fresh, healthy food. Plus, fresh food tends to be more expensive, laborious, and wasteful to ship and store. So, while a few companies are trying to make locally-grown, fresh food widely available, it just isn’t at a scale or price point that could make a huge difference yet.
Even in the unlikely case that your typical junk food-eater went all in on kale and alfalfa sprouts, our problems won’t disappear. Currently, there really isn’t a scenario under which these healthy foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population.
All this is to say healthy fast food is a very long way off from ever replacing fast food. The only realistic way that might happen would be if government stepped in, but then again, look at how well getting tobacco companies to stop selling cigarettes has gone.
“A” for effort!
Despite the odds being stacked against them, some companies are still raging against the fast food machine.
For example, Panera is helping other restaurants “clean up” their menus. It seems admirable, and it’s a nice gesture—possibly a PR move—but it’s hard to imagine any major fast food restaurant taking advice from Panera (broccoli cheddar soup in a bread bowl — never forget).
Then there are places like by CHLOE., sweetgreen, or honeygrow who focus on “redefining what it means to eat well”. Their entire mission centers around whole foods which are locally and sustainably sourced. If food meets those standards, in their eyes, the communities and the environment will be healthier.
It’s certainly a noble pursuit. Plus, there’s obviously a demand for this type of product. For example, by CHLOE., which has aspirations of being “vegan McDonalds”, sells more than 800 burgers a day, according to a Bloomberg article. They’ve got 13 restaurants, all in major cities, and are continuing their international expansion.
sweetgreen has 72 locations and honeygrow has 29, but they’re no match for powerhouses like Taco Bell, Burger King or McDonald’s; the latter having more than 36,000 restaurants in 120 countries worldwide.
And while these healthier restaurants may be multiplying, collectively, the three heaviest hitters only have 20 more restaurants than Taco Bell did in 1967. Put simply, “healthy” fast food is far behind the meteoric rise of traditional fast food spots. Consider also that only 6% of Americans identify as vegan, so even if you captured all of that market, there still wouldn’t be enough demand to justify opening thousands of restaurants.
Theoretically, to achieve McDonald’s-level status, they would have to target the lower- or middle-class demographic (and more likely the unhealthy portion of both). But that’s not their core customer, at least not yet. At by CHLOE., you can’t even pay with cash, you need a credit card or their app. Sure, technology is great and all — but requiring a smartphone to eat automatically excludes entire communities. As a result, they end up catering to white SoulCycle enthusiasts—who, more likely than not, are already eating healthy—not someone working two jobs who needs food like they need sleep.
If we’re being honest, the demographic that needs to change their lifestyle the most probably aren’t even aware that these places exist.
Healthy, but not really
But let’s just pretend for a minute that food deserts aren’t a thing, people can (and want to) drastically change their diet, and the healthy fast food infrastructure was scaleable. There’s still the problem that healthy fast food isn’t always as healthy as marketing makes it out to be.
For example, the infamous Impossible Burger has more than five times as much sodium as an unseasoned beef patty. At LYFE Kitchen, their kale salad has more fat than a Big Mac, and only one salad on their menu has less than 70% fat… sorry, but “healthy” buttermilk ranch doesn’t exist. Just because it’s vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s a fix-all.
So while the ingredients may be wholesome and preservative-free, restaurants still need to add a ton of salt, fat, and sugar for the food to taste even remotely as delectable as their meaty counterparts or to last as long. Because let’s be real — eating salad without dressing is like eating grass clippings and, unless you lost a dare, you’re not going to willingly put that in your mouth.
As a result, many of the dishes that are perceived as healthy alternatives are as caloric and fattening as anything served in a Taco Bell or Burger King.
And to be clear, labeling something unprocessed (or vegan or gluten-free) doesn’t make it magically healthy, and just because food is healthy doesn’t mean you still can’t get fat eating it.
So does it even matter that companies are trying to offer healthier food to their customers?
It matters, sure. But it’s not the be-all and end-all solution. Will one or 1,000 healthy fast casual restaurants solve the obesity epidemic? Not even close. Will these eateries make some money by capitalizing on a growing trend? You bet their bottom line they will. But they’re no match for McUniverse.
Still, healthy fast food does make choosing a salad—or even a gourmet guac burger—made with locally-sourced ingredients an option, so maybe next time we’ll pass on that mystery meat value meal… even if it’s just $.99.