Fleeing the Golden Arches for What?

Healthy-ish food at fast casual restaurants like Panera and Chipotle has been capturing consumers who began turning away from the Golden Arches in the 1990s. Better, presumably healthier food has been the alluring promise.

But Danielle Schoffman and colleagues have nicely documented that this promise might be false. Their study in the latest issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that:

On average, lunch and dinner entrées from fast-casual restaurants were higher in calories than entrées from fast-food restaurants in 2014. This was contrary to our hypothesis that energy content would be similar, and to the popular notion that fast-casual restaurants may offer healthier options than fast-food restaurants. In addition, significantly more entrées from fast-casual restaurants contained the median of 640 kcal or greater compared with fast food restaurants.

The average entrée at Panera, for example, weighs in at 583 calories compared to an average of 454 at McDonald’s. Choices still matter, but choices happen in a context. When Panera is whispering to consumers that they can count on “clean food as it should be” at Panera, it’s an invitation to suspend all doubts about the healthfulness of the food they might order.

Chipotle’s promise of “food with integrity” is attached to entrées with an even higher calorie count – 644 on average.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s has been quietly cleaning up some of its marketing and food production practices. The chain is moving to cage-free eggs, eliminating antibiotics from the production of the meat it buys, and nudging Happy Meal buyers with better defaults.

Ironically, the upscale Starbucks brand recently received a grade of F for antibiotics in their meat.

Fast casual restaurants might be hitting some of the same problems that hit the Golden Arches of McDonald’s years ago. Glib solutions, like banning new fast food outlets, have not worked out. Fleeing from a problem is usually a lousy alternative to confronting and solving it.

Better solutions for healthier dining away from home will require time and attention to the facts.

Click here for the study by Schoffman. Click here and here for more on fast food and healthy eating.

McDouble, photograph © Chris Brown / flickr

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October 9, 2016

One Response to “Fleeing the Golden Arches for What?”

  1. October 09, 2016 at 4:14 pm, Madeleine Clarke said:

    I ate out at PIZZA EXPRESS & only 1 item ticked my boxes and it was a delicious filling starter salad.
    I’ve found that not all calories are equal.
    I often have a skinny latte with diners for a dessert.
    I normally take a packed lunch and eat it somewhere to keep full.
    It works for me.Meals out are about the prrson I’m with not the food now.