Be it hangover cure, road-trip fuel, or lunchtime guilty pleasure, I have always been a sucker for salty, greasy, finger-lickin'-good, run-for-the-border-to-have-it-my-way fast food. Recently, however, I've started to feel guilty about eating at fast food restaurants. Sure, the obesity lawsuits brought against McDonald's were laughed out of court in less time than it takes to digest a No. 2 Value Meal, but with nearly two-thirds of Americans overweight, 30.5 percent considered obese, and 2,500 Americans dying from heart disease every day, I can no longer blissfully ignore the facts: Fast food kills.
Apparently I am not the only one getting the message. Diet and health industries are thriving, half the people you know are on Atkins or the South Beach diet, and in order to stay profitable (and presumably to avoid further lawsuits), McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Wendy's have all recently tacked on putatively healthy items to their menus. (Rather than trouble themselves with a new healthy menu line, KFC launched a featherbrained ad campaign comforting consumers with the news that "they can enjoy fried chicken as part of a healthy, balanced diet.")
But are these new lighter options tasty enough to change our eating habits? And are they actually healthy? Is the Big Mac doomed to extinction?
Though I've always believed in the dictum once quoted to me by a chef that "fat is where the flavor's at," I decided to set my skepticism aside and taste-test some of these new lower-fat foods. Rather than branching out into unknown territory (though they all now offer lower-fat and lower-calorie items, I've never been a big fan of Wendy's, Pizza Hut, or Blimpie), I decided to stick to my usual fast food triumvirate of Mickey D's, the BK Lounge, and Taco Hell. Curious to see how the new fare would fare against stalwarts like the Big Mac, Whopper, and Gordito, I set my sights on the McDonald's premium salads, Burger King's grilled chicken baguettes, and Taco Bell's "Fresco Style" menu items (which are the same as its regular menu items, except that fat-filled cheese and sauces are replaced with pico de gallo salsa).
A recent New York Times article by Marion Burros heralded the arrival of the new "healthful" menu items from all the major fast food chains mentioned above: "Some of this food was quite edible. Most gave healthy food a bad name." Based on my own "research," I'd say that aside from the obviously not healthy Cobb salad at McDonald's, the new menu items were almost inedible and for the most part revolting. I found it nearly impossible to get beyond the third bite. At least when I chug down an O'Doul's, it still tastes like a beer.
Burros proclaims Burger King's Smoky Barbeque and Santa Fe chicken sandwiches the "winners" of the new healthy crop. But feast your eyes on this Smoky Barbeque sandwich for a moment. And remember, eye appeal is half the meal.
Burger King's chicken baguette ad campaign promises "flavor from grilling, not from fat." At least they seemed to be moving away from painting the meat with faux grill stripes, à la Mighty Dog brand dog food. Still, the chicken, albeit eerily tender, tasted as if it had been boiled and treated with some kind of fabric softener. There was flavor, but it didn't seem to come from grilling. More likely it resulted from the whopping 1,450 milligrams of sodium—more than three orders of Supersize McDonald's french fries. Plus, the sandwich's topping, a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, was sweet, sticky, and nausea-inducing, and the baguette it was served on was mushy, bland, and undercooked.
With the chicken sandwich baguette line, Burger King offers two different value-meal options: One comes with a bottle of water and a side salad, the other with a soft drink and medium fries. Who has the will power to resist ordering the fatty option? "Hey, I'm eating a healthy low-fat sandwich! A few fries won't kill me!" Indeed, a study by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity in 2002 showed that "fast-food bundling generally steers customers toward calorically-dense, low-nutrition foods like French fries and soda, rather than toward healthier options such as salads and yogurt parfaits." Creating value meals by combining seemingly healthy items with unhealthy items like fries and soft drinks, as Burger King does, lets people continue to make bad eating decisions while feeling as if they are doing something healthy.