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Rewriting the recipe for healthy fast food

Marketplace Contributor Jun 23, 2015

Rewriting the recipe for healthy fast food

Marketplace Contributor Jun 23, 2015

Fast food restaurants see the writing on the wall. The U.S. consumer is obsessed with food. Local. All-natural. Organic. Think of all that food porn on Instagram. Or all those food documentaries on Netflix. So Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway and others have been changing up their menus. They’re removing artificial ingredients. Chipotle Mexican Grill just completed the process of getting rid of most genetically engineered ingredients, or GMOs.

But are these moves making the food any more, you know, better for you?

“Let’s see how this liquid gold tastes,” says nutritionist Terry Perry, looking down at the cheese on a 760-calorie Nachos BellGrande from Taco Bell.

Perry works with food stamp recipients on making good food choices in Spokane County, Washington. We’ve taken her out to lunch to get a nutritionist’s take on some of these strategic moves.

Perry bites into a chip. “It’s not bad – I mean it’s not terrible. It’s very salty.”

By this time next year, the cheese on the Nachos BellGrande might be a little less yellow. But that doesn’t address what Perry sees as the real problems: the high sodium, saturated fat or extra carbs.

“So you have to look at it for over all,” Perry says. “One of the biggest concerns about fast food is that it’s highly processed and that it’s usually too big of a serving,” says Perry.

At Chipotle, she’s much more impressed. But the salad she orders is approximately 630 calories — with the help of a large dollop of guacamole. That’s about twice the calorie count of her usual lunch.

Nutritionist Terry Perry eats a bowl from Chipotle.

Nutritionist Terry Perry eats a bowl from Chipotle. 

“[Removing GMOs] doesn’t really change the calorie level,” says Perry. “It doesn’t change the nutrient level, how many vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrate, how much fat is in it.”

And restaurant consultant Aaron Allen says health isn’t the point. “Fresh” is, or the appearance of it.

” ‘Fresh’ has become the most bankable word in food service,” Allen says. “And ‘processed’ has become a four letter word.”

Allen says Chipotle is the “fresh” poster child, helped out by the move to take out GMOs. It’s part of a category of so-called “fast casual” restaurants that are taking a cause-conscious approach to food. Starbucks and Panera Bread are others. Their image as the anti-McDonald’s has attracted the young dining public, and it’s paying off in their stock prices.

Now enter brands like Taco Bell and Subway, who don’t want to be left in the artificially colored cornchip dust. They can only do so much — quick and cheap depends on processed foods.

“So, they found some quick wins they can gain in terms of public perception by making some very easy steps, like using real pepper instead of an artificial flavor that tastes like pepper,” says Allen.

So, to answer the question: As you might have guessed, no, many of these changes don’t make the food any better for you. But even Chipotle acknowledges this.

“If you’re looking at our decision to move to non-GMO ingredients through the lens of being a nutritionist — and as to whether that change makes food any healthier or more nutritious in any way — then skepticism is probably warranted,” says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “But that’s not why we made the change.”

Arnold cites potential environmental impacts from cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

“While there’s no science to show that GMO ingredients are more or less healthful, there are other implications associated with GMOs,” he says.

Many researchers dispute those environmental impacts as well. But here’s one more implication that’s hard to ignore: more and more, consumers just don’t like GMOs.

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