Image via The Fun Times Guide to Food.
I elbowed my way in to write this post because I am the mother of an increasingly media-concious son who at three was prescient enough to point out the rivalry between McDonalds and Burger King even though he had never visited either establishment. We are fortunate enough to live in a little fast food-free bubble of a neighborhood in gentrified Brooklyn so I've been able to protect my son from the lure of fast food. This summer, though, we started watching two exciting game shows every Tuesday night which means we were hit with a full assault of fast food advertising. And I noticed something: suddenly fast food restaurants are trying to change their image as restaurants selling high-quality, healthy food.
Wendy's has been airing commercials with the tag line "it's waaaay better than fast food" and McDonald's has been advertising breakfasts and burgers made with "real food" and "no fillers."
It looks as if books like Fast Food Nation and the movie Supersize Me have are finally changing the public perception of fast food. Even more than the health issue (who ever said fast food was supposed to be nutritious, anyway?), is the quality issue. No one wants to be perceived as selling low-quality food, certainly not in the shopping center shadow of Whole Foods.
There's Wendy's burgers, which are made from fresh, not frozen beef. Their Garden Selections Salads are freshly made every day with "hand-cut" greens and center-cut chicken fillets. Of course, take a look at the ingredients list of the Homestyle Chicken Breast Fillet (230 calories, 10 grams of fat) you can get on your salad and you face a daunting list of funky ingredients:
Chicken Breast, Water, Modified Potato Starch, Seasoning (salt, flavor, maltodextrin, modified corn starch, yeast extract, citric acid, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, chicken broth, partially hydrogenated soybean/cottonseed oil, soy sauce solids [wheat, soybeans, salt]), Sodium Phosphate. Battered and Breaded with: Wheat Flour, Water, Bleached Wheat Flour, Salt, Modified Corn Starch, Spices, Wheat Gluten, Leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), Egg White Solids, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Fructose, Maltodextrin, Yeast, Chicken Broth, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Locust Gum, Lactic Acid, Xanthan Gum, Extractives of Paprika. Cooked in Corn/Soy Oil. Note: May be cooked in the same oil as Fish Fillets (where available). CONTAINS: WHEAT, SOY, EGG.
McDonald's has probably gone farthest in trying to change its image. It is currently promoting a "See What We're Made Of" campaign that includes short videos showing how some of their foods are made. Their Egg McMuffin sandwiches are made with fresh eggs, not a pre-made egg mixture as I would have suspected. McDonald's has hired "wellness experts" including Dean Ornish to promote health(-ish?) options on the menu. New web pages like "Meet Our Suppliers" and "From Farm to Restaurant" are under currently construction but will no doubt paint McDonald's suppliers as sweet, bucolic family farmers with high safety standards.
Another McDonald's promotion is the McDonald's Moms' Quality Correspondents: real live mothers who care about their families' nutrition are given "unprecedented access" to McDonald's system and report on what they see. On a field trip to see how McNuggets are made one mother asked questions about steroids (not used) but not antibiotics (you better believe they're used). Chickens are "free range" but kept indoors. We are also not shown exactly what goes into the McNugget batter or any flavorings or preservatives in the chicken meat -- no hint of the flavor laboratories Eric Schlosser so vividly depicts in Fast Food Nation. I seriously doubt that future field trips will include trips to those laboratories or to cattle feedlots or slaughter houses.
In an article on the difficulties of changing the image of fast food as "healthy" Matthew Boyle points out that "Despite the popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets, the more stringent recommendations about cholesterol levels, and the ongoing concerns about an obesity crisis in America, most of us don't really want to eat healthier when we walk into a fast-food establishment." So fast food restaurants are putting items on the menu they know won't sell well (like orange slices at Wendy's) just to give the impression of making an effort. According to Boyle, restaurants and customers alike are conflating "quality" with "healthy" and ingesting nearly the same amount of fat and calories with the new menu items. But in my opinion talk about nutrition is too often focused on the bad stuff (fats, including trans fats, sodium, sugar, additives) and less on the good stuff (vitamins, minerals, fiber). At least with the improvement in quality customers are getting (for example) more vitamins in their salad greens.
And then there's In-N-Out Burger. Nothing new going on there. They're still selling fast food using the same fresh ingredients they've served for years, like french fries hand-cut from fresh potatoes right there in the restaurant. In-N-Out has never made any claims to good nutrition. Their menu is much more limited than that of other fast food restaurants, even considering the "secret menu".
This contrast serves to illustrate what is to me the biggest issue with fast food: scale. Big fast food restaurants make money by serving cheap food quickly. In order to increase their market they need to make that food portable, long-lasting, and inexpensive, which means a myriad of little compromises like adding preservatives and paying its workers low wages. That's the price you pay for fast food. If you really want high-quality burgers and fries you'll have to pay more money at a smaller chain.
My last question is, will the fast food restaurants be able to keep up this trend in the face of rising food prices?
Find out nutritional information for most fast foods on Fast Food Nutrition.