While no one — except maybe a delusional McDonald’s chef — associates fast food with good health, some restaurant chains have been taking baby steps toward healthier food and a more eco-friendly business.
In the past year, several chains have announced changes to their menus, their carbon footprints and the treatment of the animals supplying their food products. In the broad scope of things, many of these restaurants are still far from green and healthy — we’re looking at you, Burger King, with your bacon sundae, and you, Wendy’s, with your triple-decker bacon burger — but we applaud even the smallest efforts toward positive change.
The home of the Whopper might have failed in its attempts this year to give its menu a healthy makeover (read about it here), but it deserves some credit for being one of the first major fast-food chains to announce a transition to cage-free eggs and an end to working with suppliers that use gestation crates. Gestation crates confine female breeding pigs to a 6.6-ft.-by-2-ft. space in which they can barely move; this practice is already banned in Sweden and the United Kingdom, as well as a handful of U.S. states.
Although it’s been incorporating more cage-free eggs and has been purchasing gestation-crate-free pork since 2007, BK announced in April that its U.S. supply chain will provide 100% cage-free eggs by 2017 and that the restaurant chain will only buy pork from suppliers that prove they’re putting an end to the use of gestation crates.
This attitude appears to be contagious: Red Robin, Sonic, Quiznos, Hardee’s and Cracker Barrel have made similar announcements in the past year.
Hamburger giant McDonald’s made headlines last summer when it gave into pressure from health advocates and revamped its popular children’s Happy Meal. The healthier kids’ meal added fruit and cut back on the french fries, reducing the calories, fat and sodium by 110, 7 grams and 130 milligrams, respectively. The fast-food chain also announced its plan to reduce salt in a variety of menu options over the next three years, as well as reduce calories, saturated fats and sugars over the next 10 years.
In May, Mickey D’s backed up its February announcement of phasing out pork gestation crates with a time frame; 10 years from now, the company said, it will no longer buy from suppliers that still use the practice.
The fast-food chain famous for its square burgers has taken steps toward nutrition awareness and humane animal welfare practices in the past year. In March, Wendy’s announced that one of its chicken suppliers, O.K. Foods, started using a low-atmospheric pressure system that renders chickens unconscious before they are handled by plant workers. This replaces the standard practice of stunning the animals with electricity.
Like McDonald’s and Burger King, Wendy’s has also made plans to eliminate the use of sow gestation stalls among its U.S. and Canadian pork suppliers over time, although it hasn’t set a deadline like its two burger rivals have.
In an effort to promote awareness among its customers, Wendy’s released a mobile nutrition app this month that allows users to customize meals based on calorie content. The app lets customers select their calorie range and then view a list of meal options, or build a meal by choosing individual items that add up to the number of calories they want to consume in a meal.
Users can view how many calories are eliminated by removing the creamy red jalapeno dressing on the Baja Chicken Salad or find out how many more calories they’ll be consuming if they choose to add extra pickles on their cheeseburger. In our opinion, if you’re eating at Wendy’s frequently enough to download the app, we doubt you’re extremely concerned with what’s in the food you’re eating, but we give Wendy’s an A for effort.
Just this past month, Arby’s joined the Kids LiveWell initiative, a program in which restaurants agree to offer meals for children that meet such nutrition criteria as the 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines. The announcement comes a year after the curly-fry king followed in McDonald’s footsteps and made healthy changes to its kids’ meals, replacing the fries with apple slices and strawberry yogurt dipping sauce. The menu makeover cut back on calories by 40%, fat by 70% and sodium by 50% compared with what it was previously dishing out.
“Eat Fresh,” indeed. The world’s largest submarine sandwich franchise started using locally grown tomatoes — purchased from sustainable family-owned farms — for the subs served at its California locations last summer. Considering we don’t usually hear about fast-food giants using locally sourced products — Chipotle being the exception — we’re impressed with Subway, even if the local focus currently only exists in California locations. Baby steps!
This past April, Subway showed its eco-friendly side with the announcement that it was now using salad bowls and lids made from 95% post-consumer recycled materials, mostly from plastic soda and water bottles. This packaging change prevents 2.62 million pounds of plastic from ending up in landfills, which represents about 500,000 gallons of petroleum needed to make the plastic bowls and lids, according to the company.
Subway made headlines again last month when it stated that the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark — which you’ve probably seen in the grocery on items like whole-wheat bread and Campbell’s Healthy Request soups — would now be displayed on the Subway menu next to items that meet the required nutritional criteria. The restaurant chain was the first to participate in the two-year pilot program.
Believe it or not, Subway’s good news doesn’t end there. This month, the chain joined a handful of others in a commitment to slowly transition to using 100% cage-free eggs, beginning with 4%. The company explained to QSR magazine that it wouldn’t be possible to make the 100% switch immediately because of the chain’s many locations; the egg suppliers need time to catch up to the demand.
Applebee’s, the world’s largest casual dining chain, joined the Kids LiveWell program this year, endorsing its grilled chicken sandwich entrée that comes with steamed broccoli and 1% milk or apple juice as one of its healthy kids’ options.
Chick-fil-A’s recent disclosure that it is, in fact, against gay marriage, might have been a poor business decision — we don’t doubt that it lost customers with that admission — but it's also made some good choices this year. Due to its success at a LEED-certified Fort Worth, Texas, location, Chick-fil-A announced in February that it planned on opening four more restaurants certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environmental Design program this year.
As for its food, the chain introduced grilled chicken nuggets as an alternative to fried nuggets for kids; it also added applesauce to its variety of side options and now only offers 1% milk, 100% apple juice, freshly squeezed lemonade or water as drink choices for kids' meals. With only 210 calories and 3 grams of fat, Chick-fil-A’s kids’ meal of grilled nuggets, a fruit cup and 1% milk might actually offer the healthiest option for children compared with other options from major fast-food chains.
Chick-fil-A also joined Applebee’s in May in participating in the Kids LiveWell program, promoting its healthy menu items for kids that meet certain nutritional standards.
We don’t consider Chipotle “diet food” by any means — a burrito can total 1,265 calories and 54.5 grams of fat — but there’s no other major fast-food restaurant chain more committed to sustainability and local ingredients than this popular Mexican grill.
The company works with sustainable family farms and claims to serve more naturally raised meat and local produce than any other restaurant company in the United States. The dairy used in Chipotle restaurants comes from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones, and the company has contributed more than $2 million in the past several years to initiatives that support sustainable agriculture, family farming and culinary education.
Chipotle captured everyone’s attention at the beginning of the year when it aired its mesmerizing and moving two-minute “Back to the Start” commercial — which promoted its commitment to sustainable agriculture — during the Grammys. The chain continued to steal our hearts by giving out free burritos (sort of) on Earth Day. The catch: Buy an $18 limited-edition reusable lunch bag made of old Chipotle billboards. Considering a burrito will cost you around $11 — and considering the deal’s green objective — it wasn’t a bad bargain.
And just when you think Chipotle can’t make its food any more eco-friendly or humane, the company announced last month that 100% of its sour cream is now made with milk from pasture-raised dairy cows. The cows that supply the dairy have daily access to outdoor pastures, are never given added hormones and are fed an all-vegetarian, plant-based diet.
RED LOBSTER, OLIVE GARDEN & LONGHORN STEAKHOUSE
Darden Restaurants — parent company of such restaurant chains as Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse — announced in September of last year that it would be overhauling its restaurants’ menus, reducing the calories and sodium in its dishes by 10% over the next five years and 20% over 10 years. A serving of fruits or vegetables, plus 8 ounces of 1% milk, was added to kids’ meals, unless a parent requests otherwise.
CARL’S JR. & HARDEE’S
CKE Restaurants — parent company of restaurant chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s — this month jumped on the bandwagon moving toward the elimination of pig gestation stalls. The company stated that it would be working with its suppliers to develop practical and sustainable alternatives to the crates and aimed to only use animals raised in group housing situations by 2022.
Southern fast-food chain Whataburger instituted two significant menu changes in the past year, the first following last year’s trend of giving kids’ meals a healthy makeover. Last November, Whataburger started offering apple slices as a substitute for french fries with any kids’ meal; a new whole-grain wheat bun that comes standard with its Grilled Chicken Sandwich or can be requested for any other Whataburger sandwich with no extra charge; and a 90-calorie side salad that can be substituted for fries.
Beginning this month, the chain also introduced its 550 Calories or Less menu, which includes two salads and six other dishes for lunch and dinner, plus six low-calorie breakfast options.