In early October 2002, a month or so preceding the most orgiastic gorging season of the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two reports. Based on health surveys conducted in 1999 and 2000, they showed that nearly two-thirds of adults 20 to 74 years old are overweight, as are one in six young people between the ages of 6 and 19. The surveys also found that about 3 in 10 adults are obese, 1 in 20 extremely so.
These official statistics from the CDC are amply illustrated day in and day out in shopping malls, elementary schools, movie theaters, sporting arenas and airports. A chair width of 18 inches was once wide enough for the average American, but not anymore: New seats in auditoriums and subway cars are now being made several inches wider. The FCC recently directed airlines to add more poundage per passenger when calculating weight loads on planes.
A new book by Greg Critser, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, points fingers at several culprits responsible for the tipping of scales. Among them is the fast food industry, which is guilty of some of the most heinous nutritional crimes of the late 20th century. (Another book, Eric Schlosser’s widely read and lauded Fast Food Nation, offers horrifying detail of an even broader spectrum of offenses committed by the industry.) But really, folks, do we need a book to tell us fast food is fat food, that America’s embrace of Whoppers, Big Macs and Jumbo Jacks is making it impossible for some jumbo parents to embrace their own super-sized children? How hard is it to figure out that a Bacon Bacon Cheeseburger (910 calories, 59 grams of fat) and an order of extra-large fries (610 cal./29 g.) from Jack in the Box are, as the country song says, a heart attack in a sack?
Yet a strange thing has happened on the way to the fat farm. Currently, you can’t drive through or go into a fast food restaurant without coming face to face with colorful come-ons for new lines of salads: Garden Sensations at Wendy’s, Premium Salads at McDonald’s, Ultimate Salads at Jack in the Box. Isn’t that nice? See, fast food chains aren’t so evil after all.
Not so fast. The numbers that alarm fast food chains don’t have anything to do with obesity rates, or the fact that (according to Fat Land) obesity-related health services are costing the nation an estimated $100 billion a year.
Nope, the numbers that concern the fast food industry are these: In January 2003, McDonald’s Corp. served up its first ever quarterly loss, a larger than expected $344 million. While the company is still the nation’s most visited fast food chainan astounding 20 million-plus people eat at McD’s every daythe company is facing a decline in its portion of the fast food market. In 2002, same-store sales fell by an average 1.5 percent at McDonald’s and by .8 percent at Jack in the Box. Meanwhile, same-store sales at Wendy’s recorded a 4.7 percent jump. Wendy’s introduced its Garden Sensations line of salads in February 2002. Coincidence? Perhaps.
The wider availability of salads at Wendy’s competitors is clearly a case of follow the profit leader, so don’t be fooled into thinking that these fat-feeders have suddenly developed a conscience about what they’re selling. A closer look at another set of numberscalories and fat gramsreveals the not-so-surprising truth: When eaten as packaged, these new menu items are nothing more than not-so-healthy hypocrisy.
The fast food chains have Web sites where they post a nutritional analysis of their menu items. I’m going to save you the time. First, Wendy’s. The Mandarin Chicken Salad starts out healthy enough: just 150 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Add the packet of roasted almonds (130 cal./12 g.), the crispy rice noodles (60 cal./2 g.) and the sesame dressing (250 cal./19 g.), and all of a sudden, your salad is 470 calories and 34.5 grams of fat. Even worse is the Chicken BLT Salad, which begins at a hefty 310 calories and 16 grams of fat; after adding the garlic croutons and honey-mustard dressing, it ratchets the totals up to 660 calories and 44.5 grams of fat. You could do the same caloric damage with a Jr. Hamburger (270 cal./9 g.) and a medium fries (390 cal./17 g.), though you’d be consuming less fat: “just” 26 grams.
McDonald’s offers three basic saladsthe Caesar, the Bacon Ranch and the California Cobbeach done two ways, with grilled or “crispy” (i.e., deep-fried) chicken. Frying the chicken automatically adds 100 calories and 9 fat grams. The Crispy Chicken California Cobb Salad, dressed with Newman’s Own Cobb Dressing, weighs in at 500 calories and 32 grams of fat. A McDonald’s hamburger is 330 calories and 14 grams of fat, and a small fries is 210 calories and 10 fat grams, for a total of 540 calories and nearly 10 fewer fat grams than the salad.
At the upper end of the spectrum is the Jack in the Box Chicken Club Salad with bacon ranch dressing, sliced almonds and seasoned croutons, tallying 830 calories and a shocking 65 grams of fat. A cardiologist might recommend instead the burger (310 cal./14 g.) and small fries (330 cal./16 g.).
If your interest is to eat healthier at fast food restaurants, there are ways to avoid the calorie and fat pile-on. Take away the bacon on many of the salads, the generous portions of cheese-type food and the extras like croutons and nuts, and you’ll find that the dressing accounts for a significant portion of the calorie and fat overload. Every one of these salads can be perfectly dressed using just half the packet provided, but many customers squeeze out every last drop until their salads look like they have taken a bath in creamy hydrogenated oils. Several of the chains offer low- or no-fat alternatives: McDonald’s, for instance, has a light balsamic vinaigrette, with 90 calories and 8 grams of fat in a 2-ounce serving.
The other option is to exercise some restraint with the salads as they’re served, though you’ll have to exercise quite a bit of restraint to cut out most of the fat grams. Skip the almonds and use half the packet of sesame dressing in Wendy’s Mandarin Chicken Salad, and your calorie total is just 335, with a relatively low 13.5 grams of fat. (Emphasis on “relatively”by point of comparison, a Snickers bar has 14 grams of fat.) Likewise, at McD’s, go for the grilled chicken Caesar, use half the dressing, and your grand total is 295 calories and 16 grams of fat.
Unless absolutely forced by location or time, I do not eat fast food. I’d rather forgo the calories for a few hours until I can find something better. But now that I know how to avoid the nutritional danger zones, the addition of salads to fast food menus is good news for me and for anyone else who finds burgers and fries both unhealthy and unappealing. The question, then, is how do these salads stack up when it comes to taste?
The day after public schools let out for the summer, I convened a group of salad-loving, weight-watching moms to sample the offerings from Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box and even Krystal. Common to all is the packaging: Every one of the salads comes in a black plastic bowl with a clear plastic lid. There must have been some industry-wide focus group that found black plastic would appeal to the more sophisticated and health-conscious diner. Jack in the Box has the largest salads, and the priciest ($4.49, as compared to $3.39 or $3.99).
Except for Caesar salads (which have mostly romaine), greens are predominantly iceberg, with the fancy stuff laid on top. Chicken is a theme throughout, with the meat always coming in either 1-inch-by-half-inch cubes or half-inch-by-4-inch strips. (The result of another focus group, maybe?) Southwest means corn, black beans and Monterey Jack cheese. Grape tomatoes are a trend. All of the fast food salads are prepacked and kept in a cooler, so you can’t really have them made to order.
Wendy’s and Jack in the Box have the best, freshest greens, but that’s only faint compliment compared to Burger King, McDonald’s and Krystal, which have managed to extract every bit of what little flavor there is in iceberg lettuce. The alarming color of the chicken cubes in Wendy’s Southwest Chicken Caesar salad made me wonder if the Bush administration has rescinded the ban on red dye no. 2. The deep-fried poultry balls in Krystal’s Chik’n Bites salad could be made of white rice for all the chicken flavor they deliver. McDonald’s Ultimate Salads were ultimately tasteless, with the exception of the Newman’s Own Dressings. (This raises a whole other question: What is the supposedly socially and healthfully conscious Paul thinking, teaming up with McDonald’s?) The worst of the bunch is probably Burger King’s greasy chicken Caesar, which makes the horrendous veggie burger there look pretty good. The best of the bunch is the Wendy’s Mandarin Chicken Salad.
So will the fast food industry’s attempts to appease and attract nutrition-wary diners work on people like me, avowed avoiders of all such dietary sabotage? Not on your life. Or mine.