The Short Answer: The fast food companies won’t get serious about healthy food unless they believe they’re going the way of the dinosaurs. Only buy healthy fast food.
Kicking the Fast Food Companies
There’s no sport in kicking the fast food companies around—that’s been done in works like Fast Food Nation, and Supersize Me. The ways that fast food can harm health seem unlimited—did you see the recent scare about perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) used to make fast food wrappings grease resistant? Turns out the PFCs—a possible cause of infertility, thyroid disease, and cancer—are getting into the food. Ouch!
We should pause to honor an English woman little known in the US—Helen Steel. In the ‘80s, as part of an activist group in London, Helen was handing out leaflets that accused McDonald’s of sins including 1) the exploitation of children, 2) inhumane treatment of animals, and 3) endangerment of workers and customer’s health. McDonald’s decided to make an example by first infiltrating the group and then threatening the members with a libel lawsuit if they didn’t apologize and desist. Intimidated by the overwhelming power of McDonald’s, most apologized and shut up. But Helen dug in her heels:
“It really stuck in my throat to apologize for something that didn’t deserve an apology, and I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to fight this case come what may...”
Helen had no resources and just one ally in the beginning, but serving as her own attorney she learned enough law to fight a ten-year court battle that became a public relations nightmare for McDonald’s, produced a book (McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial) plus a documentary, and gave new meaning to the term, “asymmetric warfare”. Incidentally, the judge found in favor of Helen on the three sins listed above. (Note to McDonald’s: Resist the urge to use your corporate muscle to bully poor, single women with names like “Steel”.)
The Darkness of the World
The premise of this blog is that we can discover the best possible diet by using our common sense to integrate three venerable oracles: science, (food) tradition and scripture. Because the media is unaware or at least unfamiliar with scripture—in contrast to most Americans—it seemed important the wisdom found therein be included. Though our audience includes people of varied persuasions—some churchgoers, others not—none have protested our use of scripture.
So perhaps you will allow me to share a thought that came while sitting in church. I had been thinking about fast food, wanting to bring deeper insight to a food reviled by most, but consumed by many. At the close of the service we sang a lovely song, Abide With Me; ’Tis Eventide, written by a Presbyterian minister in the 1800s. The closing verse invokes a feeling we all have in our search for enlightenment:
“The darkness of the world I fear, would in my home abide . . .”
So what was my great thought? It was to not add to the mountain of criticism already flung at the fast food companies, rather to shine a little light. Because of their size, these companies have the power to do good also. McDonald’s became the world’s biggest buyer of apples when they added fresh fruit to their menu. My beautiful wife suggested that we go taste the healthful foods offered by these companies. It was the last thought I might have had, but I was intrigued and we set out on a tasting tour. There were a few requirements: we wanted food that was low in calorie density (one calorie per gram was our goal); more fresh produce than meat; not deep fat fried or even fried; and breads must be whole grain, with more fiber than sugar.
Fast Food Tasting Tour
We started at the chain with the most outlets: Subway. The guys running Subway must be smart because they beat the rest of the industry to the health movement with Jared, the guy who lost hundreds of pounds eating Subway sandwiches and exercising, the focus on food with less than six grams of fat, and the addition of whole-grain breads. Is their food really healthier? Maybe not; their meats are mostly processed and they have a wall-to-wall display of Frito-Lay chips. But there is the tuna sub, which we ordered on whole-wheat bread with cucumbers, green peppers, onions, spinach, tomatoes, banana peppers, and vinaigrette dressing. It was pretty healthy and tasted good. My only complaint was the amount of mayonnaise mixed with the tuna (a 50:50 mix per the attendant). Subway offers salads also, but they didn’t look appealing. The shop was clean and well managed.
Our next stop was Taco Bell, the outlet with the cheapest prices. You can buy your food fresco style now, which replaces cheese with fresh tomato salsa. We had the Chicken Fiesta Taco Salad, fresco style. It didn’t look that good, the tortilla shell was tasteless, and the greens were just iceberg lettuce. I’ve eaten plenty of their tacos in the past, but I fear Taco Bell is falling behind.
I’ve never been a fan of Wendy’s square hamburger patty but we got a surprise: Wendy’s does salad better than anyone else. We had the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, and it was an attractive, tasty dish. The greens were mixed, the Pomegranate Vinaigrette dressing and toasted pecans were delicious. The restaurant was clean and attractive; I’d come just for the salads.
Carl’s Jr. has changed; I thought it was a hamburger outlet (remember the Famous Star, or the Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger?) but the menu we saw was mainly Mexican food: burritos, enchiladas, taco salad, etc. Carl’s hasn’t gotten serious about healthier foods. We ordered the Cranberry, Apple, Walnut Grilled Chicken Salad, I think, it was okay, but the cranberries and walnuts were missing. Did I get the order wrong, or were they cutting costs? I don’t know but it wasn’t in the class of Wendy’s salads. On the other hand, the YouTube Charbroiled Turkey Burger advertisement featuring Miss Turkey shows they understand their audience.
Our last stop was McDonald’s, the favorite fast food of kids, thanks to Ronald. McDonald’s has a line of salads plus the Fruit and Walnut Salad, a snack. We were full of salad so tried the Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap. It was good but of marginal healthiness (white flour tortilla, too much chicken, too few greens). On further thought, it was like all their food: too many calories, not enough wholesome stuff. We tried a new drink, a strawberry-lemonade freeze. It was beautiful to see, but sickly sweet with synthetic flavors that left a chemical aftertaste. Mark Bittman reported a similar outcome earlier this year when they added oatmeal, titled the “bowl full of wholesome”, to their menu. McDonald’s has the resources to really make a difference in the world but lacks the will to promote anything not sickly sweet.
We skipped KFC because I couldn’t find anything on their website that looked good. I have enjoyed their cole slaw and baked beans in the past but both have too much added sugar, 17 or 18 grams, about 4-1/2 tsp per serving.
A word about the people that work in the fast food outlets: they’re good kids, they work hard for very little money and most smile when they talk to you. Their life is hard but they don’t complain—I came away with a greater respect for them.
I had planned to make the Healthy Change for fast food similar to sugary drinks—to limit it to once a week or less. Unfortunately, I doubt the fast food companies will make serious changes unless they sense a real chance they’re headed the way of the dinosaurs. Here's one way to make the darkness of the world go away:
Please comment and share experience finding healthy food away from home.