Fast Food Chains Are Falling Flat with Their 'Healthy' Image Makeover

In the Slow Food era, fast food is having an identity crisis. It's getting ever more flamboyantly fattening (Cinnabon's 1,100-calorie, 47-grams-of-fat Caramel Pecanbon; AM PM's "Dough Ray Moo" glazed-donut double cheeseburger) while at the same time scrambling to clean up its act (Wendy's low-fat baked potatoes; Jack in the Box's nonfat fruit smoothies).

Fast food is on the defense. If the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gets its way, which it almost surely will, McDonald's can no longer give away toys with Happy Meals in the city unless and until the nutritional content of those meals is improved. Officials in nearby Santa Clara passed similar legislation six months ago, banning fast-food restaurants from handing out promotional toys. Currently the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national watchdog group, is preparing to sue McDonald's for using toys as lures.

"Dangling a toy in front of a kid in order to get that kid to pressure a parent into buying something is deceptive marketing," says CSPI's executive director Michael Jacobson. CSPI sent McDonald's a strongly worded letter in June offering to settle out of court, charging the chain with "conscripting America's children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald's."

"McDonald's practices are predatory and wrong. They are also illegal," the letter avowed, citing consumer-protection laws in several different states.

Fast-food chains are being blamed for the 30 percent national obesity rate, and they know it. They're being blamed especially for a national childhood obesity rate that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control breaks down by race and gender: 32 percent of white males and 30 percent of white females; 31 percent of African American males and 39 percent of African American females; 41 percent of Hispanic males and 35 percent of Hispanic females. (According to the CDC, California's obesity rate is 24.8 percent. Mississippi's is 34.4 percent. Maybe the San Francisco Board of Supervisors could have a chat with the Pascagoula Board of Supervisors.)

Faced with those figures and the media backlash, fast-food chains --or "quick-service restaurants," aka QSR, as the industry prefers to call itself -- are hastening to at least look chastened, adding trendy/boutique and purportedly healthier items to menus that also boast 1,100-calorie Triple Whoppers, 1,000-calorie Volcano Nachos, and 963-calorie Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburgers (sporting 75, 62, and 67 grams of fat at Burger King, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box respectively).

So lo and behold: Burger King now offers Morningstar Farms veggieburgers.

"They don't sell," says CSPI's Jacobson. "But they have to keep them on the menu in order to defend against people like you and me."

McDonald's, Popeye's, Wendy's, and Burger King now serve salads and wraps. Even KFC, whose notorious Double Down sandwich comprises bacon and cheese between two fried-chicken slabs, now offers wraps.

We've been here before. McDonald's introduced its 330-calorie, reduced-fat McLean Deluxe burger in 1991. (Carrageenan in the patties was its slim-down secret.) After dismal sales, it was discontinued in 1994. Was the McLean simply ahead of its time -- or proof that fast-food patrons are precisely the porkulent oil-guzzlers that research reveals them to be? "Diet foods don't work," warns a QSR feature in the industry journal Restaurant Report. But fast food's fast-forwarding isn't just about weight loss. It's about wooing an educated, ethical, environmentalist demographic that might otherwise spend its money at Whole Foods or Starbuck's. That's why McDonald's poured $100 million last year into advertising McCafe, its line of European-style frothy drinks made with 100 percent Arabica coffee.

And that's why KFC has just introduced the industry's first meant-to-be-reusable container.

"KFC will reduce its foam packaging by 62 percent by 2011. KFC will reduce its overall plastic use by 17 percent by 2011. There are so many ways to reuse it," reads the flowing, swirling, dazzlingly colorful Web site announcing the red-lidded polypropylene tub. "How will you reuse it?" Images flash past, showing it stuffed with trail mix, berries, edamame. It's hard to resist the enthusiasm, the urge to rush out and buy something at KFC just to keep and reuse this adorable tub.

Do these companies actually care about the environment and our health? Or are they just spreading wider nets? Clearly they're not planning to alienate obese urban teens anytime soon. (A 32-ounce McDonald's Triple Thick Strawberry Shake packs 1,100 calories and 168 grams -- that's 42 teaspoons -- of sugar.) But they're making themselves over all multipurpose, in that wishy-washy way my mother taught me to make friends at school: If they can attract some people by selling salads in sustainable packaging, they'll sell salads in sustainable packaging. If they attract some people by selling 1,000-calorie nachos, they'll sell 1,000-calorie nachos. If they can attract some people by distributing free toys, then it's Hey, kids! Free toys!

They're still supersizing us.

The USDA recommends that adults consume under 2,300 milligrams of sodium and under 65 grams of fat per day. Yet both of those daily limits are nearly fulfilled by a single Burger King salad, the trademarked cheese-and-chicken Tendercrisp, which packs 45 grams of fat and 1,740 milligrams of sodium. McDonald's offers three different wraps. All three feature beef; each has over 750 calories and 39 grams of fat: The Angus Bacon & Cheese Wrap has 2,070 milligrams of sodium. Remind me: Wraps are healthier how?

Introduced late last year, Taco Bell's Drive-Thru Diet line is an exception to the rule. Its seven items sport fewer than 350 calories each, and under 9 grams of fat. The scrumptious Fresco Bean Burrito has only 2.5 grams of fat. And some Taco Bell outlets -- such as the one in Albany, California -- are implementing green innovations such as solar-powered roofs, low-flow irrigation and energy-saving lights and windows.

Now serving tasty low-fat and nonfat fruit smoothies, McDonald's and Jack in the Box are racing toward the same border that Jamba Juice is also hurtling with its new food menu that includes salads, sandwiches and wraps, including a 640-calorie vegan Greens & Grain Wrap. Is McDonald's now a smoothie place? Is Jamba Juice now a full-service QSR?

But beyond this game of old-guard market-share bumper-cars, a true fast-food revolution is brewing in the form of ambitious new chains for which ethics come first. They're keeping the fast-food model --that systematic, speedy, squeaky-clean predictability that most of us won't admit how much we love. But there's not a bacon cheeseburger in sight.

Founded in 2007 by vegan Arizona oncologist Carl Myers, Nature's Express serves house-made, 100 percent plant-based versions of fast-food staples (black-bean burgers, air-baked fries) and exotic novelties (tempeh-bacon burritos, quinoa salad) in green packaging in two locations with hopes of expanding further, reinforcing its cred meanwhile by sponsoring events such as a screening of the pro-vegan documentary Forks Over Knives later this month in Berkeley.

"We want to keep the affordability and the convenience while raising the bar to include delicious and nutritious. Homemade is better all around," says NE's chief customer officer Molly Patrick, who was raised vegetarian but became vegan two years ago. "It makes me angry when I see obese kids walking out of [traditional] fast-food places. It is child abuse."

Launched this summer in California with plans to open 1,300 restaurants nationwide, Falafilo sells a 100-percent, 300-calorie vegan falafel-burrito-panini hybrid. The exact method of preparation is a trade secret, but its chickpea filling isn't deep-fried. Sealed tightly inside a flattish pita, the contents don't gush out.

"You can eat my sandwich while riding a bicycle. You can eat it while you're skateboarding or jogging," beams Falafilo's CEO Ernest Taraji, a former Wall Street stockbroker. "You can eat my sandwich with one hand."

Equally ambitious, equally meatless, and also selling fast-food falafel is Maoz, a rapidly expanding international chain founded in Amsterdam in 1991. Its trippily tiled, irresistibly hip shops are semi-salad bars where, into a sustainable box containing five fried falafel balls and a scattering of lettuce (250 calories total), you pile a dozen-plus fresh-daily salads, with free refills.

"I wanted to provide a healthier alternative that is served just as quickly but uses less fats and oils and more natural flavors," says Josh Shaeffer, a vegetarian who opened a Maoz franchise in Berkeley this spring after earning his MBA. "I applaud McDonald's for adding salads to its menu, but if you load those salads with high-calorie, high-fat dressing, what's the point?"

After receiving that strongly worded letter this summer, McDonald's top brass "took umbrage," says the CSPI's Jacobson. "They declined, I think foolishly, to negotiate." CSPI is now actively seeking a plaintiff for its lawsuit: "someone who bought a Happy Meal for a child after being pestered by that child, and who feels that this practice is unfair.

"This lawsuit is about getting McDonald's not to use toys to get kids into their restaurants. If they were selling apples and oranges, this wouldn't be an issue."

Ah, but McDonald's does sell apples, in the form of Apple Dippers, a packet of fresh apple slices served with low-fat caramel sauce.

They're trying. See?


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