Can Fast Food Ever Be Healthy?

Health Writer

Concerned consumers and health and nutrition experts have been begging food manufacturers and fast food restaurants to improve the nutrition and caloric profiles of their foods.  Experts, politicians and consumer advocacy groups have called for lower salt levels, less added sugar, healthier fats and lower calorie loads in popular foods.  We’ve seen Chipotle step up by saying they will adjust some food formularies, removing certain artificial colors and ingredients, and now Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have announced that artificial colors and flavorings will be removed from most of their meals, replaced by more natural alternatives.  Will that really make the food healthier?

Taco Bell and its corporate companion Pizza Hut say they will be removing Yellow No. 6 from nacho cheese; Blue No. 1 from avocado ranch dressing; and carmine, a bright red pigment which actually comes from insects, from its red tortilla strips.  Taco Bell will also replace black pepper flavoring with actual black pepper.  Lastly, Taco Bell aims to remove high fructose corn syrup and unsustainable palm oil by 2015.  Pizza Hut has a goal to remove artificial colors and preservatives by the end of July 2015.

Consumers are using terms like fresh and real in their demands for healthier foods.  Manufacturers have interpreted those demands as a mandate to limit or cut out chemical-sounding ingredients.  Even Kraft is removing artificial colors from its macaroni and cheese, and Panera has pledged to remove 150 artificial colors, flavors and additives from its menu. All that is great in one sense, since using “real ingredients” is an excellent goal.  The real question, though, is how are these changes affecting the actual health nature of the foods we eat?  Safer is one thing, but the nutrient profile is a whole different discussion.

Critics of this effort are not complaining about the changes.  They just want to see meaningful improvements to food recipes so that consumers get:

  • Less added sugar
  • No trans fats and lower levels of saturated fats
  • Less salt
  • Lower calorie loads
  • Less processed grains and more whole grains

In some cases, the artificial ingredients being removed have no science to suggest they are dangerous – they just sound scary to the average consumer looking for cleaner names and terms.  It is a stretch to suggest that, because of the current changes proposed by these companies, these foods should now be regular choices rather than treats.  In my opinion, they are still occasional food splurges and not meant for daily fare.  Yes, the changes are moving in the right direction, but the average person’s diet should mostly include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, fish, healthy fat sources, whole grains and some low-fat or fat-free dairy products.  If you want fast food, make it a “sometimes” foray, and identify it as a treat even if it has fewer chemicals.

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