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The healthy food trend has not overlooked fast food. In this two-part series, we investigate the problem with ultra-processed fast food, what this means for the plant-based revolution and see examples of how restaurants can create healthier fast food. 

Fast food is evolving. Instead of ultra-processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar, restaurants are creating fresher, simpler and more nutritious fast food meals. And they’re doing it without compromising convenience, affordability and taste. 

This trend is not a moment too soon. 75% percent of Americans are  overweight and obese by large numbers.  Obesity reportedly increases the risk of death from Covid-19 by a factor of 12 when combined with other dietary conditions. 

In the first part of the Healthy Fast Food Trend series we saw that major chains are currently focusing on offering plant based meat-alternatives that, unfortunately, are also highly processed. So, while consumers may think they are eating healthier, their meals are being ‘green-washed’

Restaurateurs that provide simpler and less processed fast-food options are seizing the opportunity in healthy dining, and enjoying an increase in profits. 

One Restaurant Is Doing It Right

Ben’s Fast Food has four pick-up/delivery locations in California. They make simple, wholesome and nutritious dishes from scratch, for under $8. The chain’s founder, Ben, started the concept after realizing that affordable and convenient fast food is a necessity for today’s society, but it doesn’t have to be full of additives and low in nutritional value. 

Growing up in Bakersfield, CA, near some of the richest farmland in America, Ben couldn’t fathom why most of the restaurants locally available were fast food eateries. 

I started this restaurant with a dream of changing that story: serving healthy meals as affordable and delicious as traditional fast food. For three years I experimented with recipe after recipe, searched for suppliers offering clean label ingredients, and fed a few thousand friends, family, and neighbors with dinner tastings out of my home.

Fast Food Restaurant Chains Add Healthy Options

Ben’s makes all their food from scratch, priding themselves in hormone-free quality meat and totally clean label ingredients. They don’t use any refined sugars, or sweeteners and are totally gluten, soy and dairy free. 

Ben’s Fast Food sources as much as possible locally. Because freshness and quality are top priorities for them, they use Cheetah as a supplier for their produce and supplies. 

I appreciate Cheetah's honesty and transparency. What you see is what you get with them! Plus, their next day delivery is crucial.

Clean Label Menu Options

Diners want the option to make an informed choice. They want to know what went into the dish they are about to enjoy. They still might choose a comforting lamb roast instead of a salad, but knowing that the ingredients are natural and that health is prioritized is paramount. 

So offering a variety of clean-label, healthy and nourishing choices on the menu is the first step. 

Experiment with Everything Nature Has to Offer

Invite your chefs to have fun with an array of basic ingredients, textures and tastes in vegetables, fruits, legumes and spices. Using fresh produce as much as possible, from a trusted supplier, also has the added value of being extremely fast to prep for serving. 

Where fresh produce is concerned, sticking to seasonal menus enables restaurants to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables that can be locally sourced. Unprocessed produce has value that diners are willing to pay for. It also adds diversity to a menu which brings clients back again and again. 

McDonalds in Switzerland, for example, source at least 80% of their ingredients locally, from grass fed beef to Swiss grown lettuce and tomato. This is what makes the BigMac so delicious, but also so expensive ($7.04 in CH vs $5.65 in the US as of July 2021)

Avoid Ultra Processed Ingredients

As a rule of thumb, refraining from cans as much as possible will reduce a lot of a restaurant’s ultra-processed ingredients. Instead of tomato sauce from a can, with the additives that allow a tomato to ‘live’ for a year on the shelf, restaurants can create their own tomato sauce. Diners will taste the difference instantly and the price should reflect that. 

Sugar and processed grains are perhaps the most culpable ingredients that lead to overeating and impact health. Simply refraining from adding sugar, choosing quality ingredients that don’t have added sugar (in all its forms) and using whole grains for everything from pasta to pastries can make a big difference. 

And when carbs or empty calories must be used, reducing portion size is another way to make a dish healthier. McDonalds in Switzerland created the downsized mini-McFlurry that is very popular with Swiss diners. 

In the end, fast food means fast for the consumer, but it may still require significant prep. That’s okay, and it’s exactly why diners turn to restaurants for healthy meals. They are willing to pay for the preparation. 

For restaurants with limited time or headcount, external services, like Cheetah’s JIT, can provide quality pre-prepped produce every day. 

Healthy Fast Drinks

Drinks are where a good share of profit is made for restaurants. However, fruit shakes and squeezes, that pack 10 oranges into a cup, contain an excessive amount of calories by all accounts. 

High-sugar sodas and other processed or preserved drinks are also not so healthy, to say the least. Heightened alcohol consumption during the pandemic has led many to seek out non-alcoholic cocktails.

By offsetting the regular offering of high-sugar sodas, processed drinks and alcohol, with simple low sugar ingredient options, restaurant owners can give patrons healthier choices. 

Offering a home-made sugar-free lemonade (that can sell for more than a Sprite) and zero-proof cocktails are a good place to start.

The next step is offering pro-biotic and functional beverages that can calm digestion or boost the immune system. These too can be made from scratch or brought in from a trusted supplier. 

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