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RONALD MCDONALD WANTS YOU BACK. You remember Ron: He was your best friend when you were 6 years old and longed for the burger-fries-toy combo in a Happy Meal. Ron was also your buddy in college, when you could fill up for $5, any time of day. In your early working years, Ronald provided hot food in minutes so you could work ridiculously long hours. The two of you were close.

But then, the burger clown’s allure faded. There was the bad news about cholesterol and saturated fat. You kept hearing from nutritional experts who were appalled by the lack of nutrients and the excess of refined flours, sugars and other nasties. Then you started watching your weight, and suddenly, packing so many calories into a bun just didn’t seem like a good idea. Maybe you got interested in free-range meats, organics or lower-carb eating, or concerned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whatever the reason, Ronald started seeming so old-fashioned, so yesterday. And you started steering clear of fast-food counters in general.

But now he’s back, and he’s brought his fast-food friends. The chicken place, the sandwich shop, the pizza joint. They’ve all slimmed down and updated. They sound wholesome and health-savvy. They’ve got new things to offer. Ronald McDonald is now relevant and with it, talking about low-cholesterol ingredients and healthy menu choices. Wendy’s has “Deluxe Salads.” Burger King has a whole new line of grilled sandwiches, plus a new bistro-inspired “fire-grilled” logo and ads that feature prominent pictures of vegetables.

Other fast-food places now offer yogurt, granola, salads, fruit and grilled items. Some are even beginning to include a few organic items on their menus (in the U.K., McDonald’s now features organic milk). The advertisements sound pretty darn good. Could the new fast food be just what we need – the healthful stuff we know we ought to eat, at a speed that fits our time-poor lifestyle?

Well, yes and no. Before you make the turn to the drive-thru window, it helps to get a little perspective on exactly what these chains are serving up – and why.

The first thing to understand about fast food is that it is and always will be Big Business: Nothing here is done on a whim. According to Eric Schlosser in his 2001 bestseller, Fast Food Nation, Americans “spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music – combined.”

With financials like those, you can bet that the new “healthful menu” introductions didn’t come out of the blue. Over the last couple of years, corporate executives from companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC have had their ear to the ground, listening to the sound of an approaching health trend. They’ve begun to sense that as the media continues to focus on this country’s weight and health problems, especially among children, people’s ambivalence about fast food is growing.

Americans have embraced fast food as a welcome convenience and a tasty treat. The fast-food companies have worked hard to position themselves as helpful, reliable purveyors of hot, tasty meals for the entire family. But it’s been getting increasingly difficult for these same companies to brush off a growing tide of criticism, particularly in the wake of recent exposés that critique their food quality, corporate operations, environmental responsibility, political antics and industrial/agricultural power.

While all these attacks have had some public impact, the ones with the most resonance across the broadest audience relate to health and nutritional concerns. The fast-food companies realize that almost everyone these days is worried about what they and their families are eating. So they’re not happy when all manner of experts start appearing regularly on the morning talk shows, blasting the excess calories and lack of nutrition in many of their most popular menus and snack foods.

Even the legal community is now stepping up to the disposable plate, filing class action lawsuits, attempting to take fast-food companies to court – and the bank – for making their clients obese. Last year, two teenagers sued McDonald’s, saying the mega-chain’s food has caused the teens’ life-threatening obesity.

The result of all this: For the first time in recent memory, an industry that has seen steady growth since the 1950s is experiencing profit contractions and smelling trouble.

In response, the fast-food giants have been working hard to rehabilitate their tarnished image. Right alongside the new lower-fat, un-fried, lower-cal options on their menus, they’ve begun to serve up promotional materials that encourage adults to eat responsibly and exercise regularly. They sponsor athletic events, fitness-related programs and health-related research. McDonald’s has even distributed pedometers with its salads in some locations.

A Fresh Look

This face-lift hasn’t gone unnoticed. “It’s been very interesting to watch this change come about,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Because, while I’m sure some people at the fast-food companies are concerned about obesity and ill health, they are also concerned about being blamed for it. So, they have come up with all sorts of ways to deflect that blame.” The companies’ promotional brochures stress that obesity is the result of lack of physical activity, says Wootan, and underplay the impact of calorie-dense food. Most suggest that fast food can be part of a healthy diet. Skeptics like Wootan see this as a somewhat misleading ploy.

“At the same time,” she acknowledges, “consumer demand has resulted in some very meaningful changes: Because Americans are really trying to eat better and feed their families better, the restaurants have had to at least try and offer healthier options.”

Mark Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, is also cautiously optimistic about the trend: “Of course, it’s all about advertising. It’s all about marketing. These companies are incredibly sophisticated about how they package their products and target consumers. Still, by making these menu changes, they’ve essentially admitted there’s a problem, and they’re giving people some new tools to work with. And when it comes to obesity in this country, we need all the help we can get.”

Steering Clear of the Traps

Now, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this magazine you’re fairly savvy about what you eat. You’re probably aware that you consume a more healthful diet when you eat at home regularly or, when out and about, you seek alternatives to mass-produced food.

If you’re lucky, you’ve found a café that serves fresh soups and salads; a little Tex-Mex place that does mostly vegetarian; or, better yet, an organic grocery store with a well-stocked salad bar. Still, on those occasions when you do have to pull off the highway into a commercial zone or grab something quick while changing flights, it would be comforting to think that it’s possible to stop at one of the larger fast-food chains and get something to eat without dramatically expanding your waistline or raising your blood pressure. And in truth, you probably can.

As you begin to navigate this new fast-food nation, however, it is important to remember that plenty of hazards remain, some of them obvious, others not so easy to spot.

The fast-food lane is tricky territory. Here’s an example: Late last summer, KFC started airing a commercial in which a Middle American woman, eager to get her lazy husband to start eating healthier, comes home with a bucket of the Colonel’s Original Recipe Chicken, which, if you haven’t been to the restaurant for a few years, is still deep-fried in a secret-recipe batter.

The point of the ad, which a number of newspaper columnists swiftly ridiculed, was that eating a piece of fried chicken (which has 380 calories) was much healthier than eating a Whopper from Burger King – not entirely surprising when you consider that the sandwich has 710 calories and 43 grams of fat. When asked to defend the claim that “fried chicken can be part of a healthy diet,” a representative from KFC pointed out to a reporter from ABC News that without the skin, a chicken breast – the largest piece in the bucket – has only 19 grams of fat and 11 grams of carbohydrates. The point being, that people on the ever-popular Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, or various other high-protein, low-carb regimens can occasionally indulge, if they simply pick the “fried” off the fried chicken.

Now imagine doing that: holding a tub of steaming, fragrant fried chicken, picking out a single piece and removing the skin. “What would be the point of that exercise?” Bob Garfield, a writer for Advertising Age magazine, asked the same reporter from ABC News. “KFC is the skin. Plus, nobody eats just one piece of KFC chicken. It’s like, you know, who eats one potato chip? That’s the whole idea of KFC – they don’t serve it in a bucket for nothing.”

Garfield is pointing up a fact that the marketing departments of fast-food chains understand intimately: Regardless of what brings you in the door, once you’re there, these restaurants have you by the nose, the eyes, the tastebuds and the wallet. Just about every part of the fast-food environment – including the bucket – is designed to make you want to eat more. Sure, anyone can walk into a McDonald’s and order a small salad and a bottle of spring water. But the minute we get a whiff of those burgers, and see people lined up to order French fries and milk shakes, the odds of standing firm decrease exponentially.

David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, says that human beings are essentially “stimulus bound” eaters. In plain terms, that means we are likely to eat whatever is available to us, regardless of portion size or overall calorie content. It’s also very difficult for a person to consistently eat the same two or three items in any environment, especially if everyone else is ordering something that is bigger and looks like it tastes better.

“We tend to do what other people around us are doing. If you’re in line and everyone else is ordering a burger and French fries, you’re likely to do the same. To resist would require extra cognition – extra help psychologically,” Levitsky asserts. “There’s also some data that shows the more people you’re eating with, the more you eat. You go to a fast-food place, where there are all sorts of people eating, and that will increase your intake as well. Analyze the amount of food people eat in a fast-food restaurant; it’s about 20 to 25 percent greater than they would eat at home,” says Levitsky. “And it has a much higher fat content than what you eat at home.”

It seems no small coincidence, then, that even as most fast-food restaurants have begun to offer a few more healthy items, they have also increased portion sizes and aggressively promoted “meal deals” that feature the option of supersized items for just a few cents more.

It’s also worth noting that none of the major chain restaurants have yet started making healthier items part of their children’s menu. It’s true that select restaurants in the McDonald’s chain have experimented with offering some low-fat, sugary yogurt snacks and fruit juices, but for the most part the kid’s stuff at most fast-food outlets remains every bit as unhealthy, and every bit as alluring, as it was when Ronald McDonald was blowing balloon animals for your best friend’s eighth birthday.

Playing It Safe

Almost as tough as managing the environment is making certain that food you order is indeed the sort of healthful fare you’re expecting. While the salad or yogurt cup or grilled sandwich you’re planning to order may be low-fat and low-cal, many of the condiments and add-ons are not. For example, of the four “supreme” salads on Wendy’s menu, only one, the Mandarin Chicken Salad, has fewer than 11 grams of fat – assuming you order the low-fat honey mustard dressing, not the regular honey mustard dressing, which has a whopping 26 grams of fat.

Things are pretty much the same at McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, where many of the offerings contain several hundred calories and unhealthy levels of trans fats and chemical additives, and even the healthier options include refined flours and sugars. And very few of these so-called healthy alternatives have substantial quantities of the cancer-fighting phytochemicals, micronutrients, antioxidants, fiber and essential fatty acids that nutritionists now realize are so crucial to our health.

“Aside from salad greens and tomatoes, most fast food is delivered to the restaurant already frozen, canned, dehydrated or freeze-dried,” writes Schlosser in Fast Food Nation. “What we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40,000.”

On Your Own

It would help if there were signposts directing us through this wilderness of processed, calorie-dense fare, but generally speaking, there are not. According to Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, most fast-food restaurants fail to provide appropriate nutritional information to customers when it matters most – at the point of purchase. Some chains will provide nutritional-information pamphlets at the counter upon request; at others, you need to educate yourself (on the Web, or by requesting brochures by mail) before you walk through the door – which can be inconvenient or even impossible when you’re between kids’ soccer games or stuck on the interstate.

“There are many, many more unhealthy choices than healthy. So you have to be very careful,” Wootan says. “To help people make informed choices, fast-food restaurants should post health information up on the menu boards. But until people consistently demand that, it’s not going to happen.”

Even at Subway – where there are seven sandwiches listed that have less than 6 grams of fat – you literally have to read the fine print to make sure you’re following the same regimen as the restaurant’s now-slender pitch man, Jared Fogle. Add cheese (which is standard unless you decline it) and those sandwiches are no longer on the diet plan. Add mayonnaise or other condiments and, over time, you may wind up looking more like Jared in his “before” pictures.

“If you have to go to a fast-food place, stick with the salads as much as possible and go easy on the dressings,” advises the University of Maryland’s Kantor. “Avoid large portions of cheese, most meat products, and, most importantly, avoid any item that’s labeled ‘crispy’ or that’s been fried.”

Which leaves a person wondering: “What’s the point? Why go to a fast-food restaurant if I basically can’t eat much of anything on the menu?”

Well, to be fair, if you have savvy and self-control, it is possible to find healthful (or at least health-neutral) food at a fast-food chain. But no matter how selective you are, most experts suggest, if you make the drive-thru window a habit, your diet is likely to suffer.

“It’s often not what you eat when you buy fast food, it’s what you don’t eat,” says Kantor. “If fast food is a regular part of your diet, it usually means you’re not eating whole grain foods or enough fruits and vegetables.” And it usually means that you’re not spending time buying, preparing and eating food with your family and friends.

Mealtimes, points out Kantor, are about much more than consuming nutrients: The food you buy can, if you let it, enrich your community and local economy. The meals you eat can, if you let them, create a healthful home environment that can ease stress, contribute to long-term health – even protect your children’s mental health.

Most of us do our best. We cook and eat together as often as possible. We shop for locally grown produce at the market. We look for healthy spots to grab a bite when we can. And when we can’t, the lure of fast food remains powerful.

If we’re aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways these products are marketed and sold to us, it’s possible to benefit from the convenience and omnipresence of these chains and still maintain a reasonably healthy, balanced diet.

But a health-minded adult would still be wise to regard fast-food emporiums and products with a wary eye. Parents would be remiss not to teach their children about the messages fast food comes wrapped in and the impact it has on our culture. Ultimately, we would all be better off if we treated fast food the way it was meant to be treated: not as a necessary evil, a deadly trap or a fabulous treat, but as a convenient, often tasty, and sometimes-okay compromise.

What’s Really in Fast Food?

FLOUR, SUGAR, SALT, OIL – at their best, the ingredients in fast food are no worse than what you might find in similar items on your grocery-store shelves. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much: The bulk of fast foods (like the vast majority of conventional prepared-food products) are composed of not terribly wholesome ingredients sourced in mass quantities and factory-prepped for the lowest possible per-unit cost, the fastest possible assembly and longest possible shelf life.

Whether or not you embrace fast food depends on whether you are comfortable with such trade-offs. Leave alone the merits of the meat products for the moment; set aside concerns about the environmental and agricultural impact of the fast-food industry (all covered in detail in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation). The fact remains, if you are trying to eat healthy and are regularly opting for fast food as part of your strategy, you will inevitably come face to face with a series of challenging choices – even when limiting your picks to the “healthy” items.

You’ll find grilled sandwiches that come on white bread and are slathered in sugary, trans-fat-laden sauces. You’ll find salads studded with processed meat and cheese products and served with high-fructose-corn-syrup-based salad dressings. So is it even possible to walk through a fast-food restaurant with your health intact? Sure – you just have to realize that, in most cases, you’re walking through a bit of a nutritional minefield.

What you can do: Whenever possible, review the complete list of ingredients and nutritional information for all food products you buy. Learn how the products that go into your food are grown and raised, how they are prepared and how the ingredients and cooking methods are likely to affect your health, energy and vitality.

Also keep in mind that many ingredients (including flavors, colors, stabilizers, texturizers, emulsifiers and solvents) that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA are not required to be specifically listed on a product’s nutritional label. In some cases, a single reference to “natural flavor” or “artificial color” may account for dozens of chemical additives in a single product.

Below are just a few of the most common ingredients you’ll find in fast foods. It is important to note that different fast-food chains use different ingredients. This list is general and representative of several national chains, but not all these ingredients are present in all products in all chains. Also, as noted, these ingredients are found in many packaged foods, not just fast-food restaurant items.

6 Common Fast and Ultra-Processed Food Ingredients

HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP: a highly processed and concentrated form of sugar.

It’s in: Sodas, buns, ketchup, salad dressings, sauces and condiments, croutons, some milk shakes and frozen desserts, most cookies and pastries.
Short-term effect: Blood-sugar spikes, resulting in a depressed immune system for four to six hours, plus a potential for increased sugar and carb cravings several hours after eating.
Long-term effect: Elevated triglycerides (harmful blood fats that contribute to heart disease); increased risk of cancer and other disease from depressed immune system; increased risk of diabetes and weight gain from blood-sugar spikes.
Better for you: The unprocessed, natural fructose found (along with vitamins, minerals, sterols and antioxidants) in fruits.

WHEAT FLOUR: bleached or unbleached, unless it is listed as “whole,” it is highly processed and stripped of bran, germ and other healthy components.

It’s in: Buns, pastries, the breadings and coatings of most fried foods.
Short-term effect: Lacking fiber and offering little nutritional value per calorie, white flour produces blood-sugar spikes and depresses the immune system.
Long-term effect: White flour actually requires more nutrients to break it down than it provides, so in the long term, processed flour removes B vitamins and antioxidants from the body. The blood-sugar spikes and depressed immune system increase risk of diabetes, weight gain, cancer and heart disease.
Better for you: High-fiber foods made from whole and sprouted grains.

SODIUM: from highly processed salt.

It’s in: Salad dressing, French fries, meats, sauces. A single order of some fast-food items, such as a chicken fillet or even a Cobb salad, can have one-third to one-half of the RDA of sodium for an adult.
Short-term effect: Bloating as the result of water retention; in salt-sensitive people, increase in blood pressure.
Long-term effect: May reduce levels of key minerals and antioxidants in the body. Like white flour, processed salt actually requires more minerals and antioxidants to process than it provides.
Better for you: Adding your own salt to taste, preferably natural sea salt, which contains many other minerals your body needs to use the sodium.

ARTIFICIAL FATS: such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

It’s in: Salad dressings; buns; grilled chicken breasts, patties, nuggets or tenders; French fries; oil in which chicken, fish and French fries are cooked; milk shakes; seasoning; croutons.
Short-term effect: Raises blood cholesterol.
Long-term effect: Trans fats (present in all hydrogenated oils) are artificially saturated and contribute to heart disease, cancer and accelerated aging. All cells in the body use fats; artificial and potentially toxic fats (such as cottonseed oil, which is made from cotton, a nonfood crop that can be sprayed with pesticides not allowed on food crops) can interfere with normal cell function.
Better for you: Natural oils (such as cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil) that contain healthful and essential omega-3 fats.

PRESERVATIVES: such as calcium propionate, calcium disodium EDTA, and TBHQ added to preserve the food and flavor.

It’s in: Buns, seasonings, most processed-food products.
Short- and long-term effects: Preservatives make foods resistant to breakdown by rot and mold, but these same chemicals may also make it harder for our bodies to use nutrients in the food.

CHEMICALS: such as dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent; and calcium peroxide and ammonium sulfate, dough conditioners.

It’s in: Most products, including sandwiches, drinks, fries, some salads.
Short- and long-term effects: No one knows. Many of these chemicals have not been tested extensively for safety; none have been tested in combination with other chemicals present in these foods.

This article originally appeared as “The Lure, The Lie” in the March 2004 issue of Experience Life.

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