Health Foods Coming to Burger Chains?
We may argue that we indulge in bad eating habits because we're bombarded with temptation, but as Jon Barron has been saying for years, businesses are in the business of making money. If we want junk food, they'll sell us junk food. And if instead we insist on healthy food, they'll sell us healthy food. And now new evidence reinforces the idea that public demand can influence food giants to revise their menus in a healthier direction. Case in point: Both Burger King and McDonald's are moving to make their menus healthier, and you can be sure these moves don't come as a result of soul-searching on the part of the burger executives. What consumers want, the fast-food moguls supply, and apparently, the chains have noted that people want more nutritious food for a balanced diet. And so it is that the lower calorie "Satisfries" are coming to Burger King, while McDonald's plans to add salads, smoothies, and whole grains. In fact, McDonald's says it will offer salad as an alternative to fries, and at no extra cost.1 And keep in mind, that for several years now, McDonald's has already been the largest seller of salads in the world.
We'll have to stay tuned to see what actually gets passed onto customers. While the move to make menus healthier at these bastions of fat and processed carbs certainly is something to get smiley-faced about, it isn't clear that the big chains actually understand what the words "truly healthy" really mean. The record to date isn't impressive. Take the McDonald's "healthy" oatmeal that's been on the menu as an alternative to the fatty Egg McMuffin for a few years. According to an article in the New York Times, the McDonald's spin on oatmeal leaves something to be desired.2 The oatmeal, apparently, comes complete with pre-added "cream," and that cream contains five artificial ingredients. And brown sugar gets added in abundance unless you specifically request otherwise. In fact, the maple oatmeal contains 32 grams of sugar--more than a Snickers Bar, and weighs in at 10 calories more than that Snickers. The final insult is that the oatmeal--the grain itself--has seven added ingredients.
As author Mark Bittman points out, "Real oatmeal contains no ingredients; rather, it is an ingredient."
The chain also says it will promote vegetables and fruits to kids through cute advertising and packaging. But what vegetables and fruits are we talking about…and what's being added to them? In fact, McDonald's already offers veggies in certain locations, like France and Singapore, but it isn't organic broccoli that's on the menu. Rather, the star vegetable seems to be corn kernels.
Now there's a boondoggle to get snared in. Corn may have fewer calories and less fat than French Fries, but almost all US corn at this point is genetically modified, and at least some question the safety of GMO foods. Plus, if the corn comes canned, it's probably going to be treated with preservatives and exposed to the BPA lining in the container. And most important of all, corn is high glycemic -- coming in at 70-85 on the glycemic index. For some perspective, strawberry jam only hits 51.3 Can you say diabetes?
Then there's the salad issue. Certainly lettuce beats fries, but you might want to be cautious about the dressing before celebrating. First of all, most McDonald's dressings contain autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, which are fancy disguises for MSG. fn] "What Foods to Avoid." 27 September 2013.. http://www.msgtruth.org/avoid.htm Even the healthier-sounding dressings, like Newman's Own Caesar Dressing, are laden with fat--18 grams for the Newman's Own. The Ranch Dressing has 15 grams of fat, 170 calories, and 530 grams of sodium. The chain does offer some low-fat options, which certainly are better choices.
One absolute positive is that soda is slated to be less celebrated in the land of the golden arches. Currently, soda comes with Happy Meals, the popular kids' offering. The new plan calls for listing only water, milk, and juice as Happy Meals beverage options, with soda available by request only. You might argue that milk--and particularly non-organic milk--as well as juice and municipal water aren't exactly at the top of the health-food list, but arguably, they represent a step in the right direction, although in the case of packaged juices with their high levels of sugar, it's probably a very small step. Nevertheless, it's hard to find a nutritional nightmare that outdoes most soda.
Again, the point here is that even though it's great news that McDonald's plans to offer options that may be healthier, it pays to note that healthier doesn't necessarily mean healthy. McDonald's is running scared after reporting losses for the first time in a decade recently, and it will do what it needs to do to appear to comply with public preferences. But, as Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says "The changes McDonald's is making make the food somewhat healthier. But I don't think a hamburger, some apples and fries is [sic] something I'd call healthy."4
Meanwhile, over at Burger King, it's the same song--but with a different twist. Instead of merely offering healthier sides to go along with the fries, Burger King intends to transform menu staples, most notably its fries, into something more virtuous. The new rendition of fries will have 30 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories than the current offerings. With 56 million customers ordering fries from Burger King each month, it's a bold move, and so far, the reviews of ‘satisfries' are not bad. An informal poll by the Huffington Post had three out of ten tasters preferring the new fries over the old, noting that they have a stronger potato taste compared to the originals.5 The other seven testers, apparently preferred that old grease and salt flavor to the taste of actual vegetables.
But don't be deceived. Burger King hasn't abandoned the dark side any more than its sister company has. First of all, the chain just introduced a burger innovation that has fries folded into the sandwich. Think "double the pleasure, double the sin." And at just $1 per "fry burger," you should probably also think 2-3 burgers per meal. And as for the reduced-fat fries, they still have 270 calories in a single serving, although at 6.7 grams of fat, they offer a substantial improvement over the 11.2 grams in a McDonald's order.6
In short, it's nice to know that the burger joints are inching toward healthier options, but as noted above, it appears that it's still going to be a long road before your fast-food meal will come with little to worry about.
- 1. Strom, Stephanie. "With Tastes Growing Healthier, McDonald's Aims to Adapt Its Menu." 26 September 2013. The New York Times. 27 September 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/27/business/mcdonalds-moves-toward-a-healthier-menu.html
- 2. Bittman, Mark. "How to Make Oatmeal…Wrong." 22 February 2011. The New York Times. 27 September 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/how-to-make-oatmeal-wrong
- 3. http://www.shakeoffthesugar.com/
- 4. Choi, Candice. "McDonald's to Offer Fruit, Salad as Sides." 26 September 2013. ABC News. 27 September 2013. http://abcnewst.com/Health/wireStory/mcdonalds-offer-salad-fruit-side-20387745
- 5. Pollis, Carey. "Burger King ‘Satisfries,' New Lower Calorie French Fries, Leave Us Decently ‘Satisfied." 27 September 2013. Huff Post Taste. 27 September 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/24/satisfries_n_3983311.html
- 6. Madrang, Charisma. "Burger King Adding ‘Guilt-Free' Fries to the Menu." 24 September 2013. Business Insider. 27 September 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/burger-king-launches-guilt-free-fries-2013-9