With consumers becoming as concerned about eating healthily as they are about getting their food quickly, the world of fast food is rapidly evolving. A 2015 survey showed that over 80% of Americans feel that fast food vendors fail to offer enough healthy options, while three quarters also believe that they eat well. With recent legislative changes around the world, such as the “sugar tax” in the UK, governments are cracking down to curb an impending obesity crisis.
However, the onus should be on the outlets who sell convenience and junk foods in the first place and, to a degree, these restaurants and stores are delivering. The popularity of new restaurants dealing in healthier to-go options are leading some to call it a trend, with Eater noting the rising number of vegans as the major contributing factor. Yet there is an equal demand for vegan junk food, which splits the difference by serving plant-based ingredients in decidedly unhealthy ways. So just where is the healthy future of fast food going, and is it as good for us as it claims to be?
What has prompted the fast food health kick?
On a near-weekly basis, we are bombarded with articles alerting us to the health risks of overly salty, fatty, or processed foods. Even once we enter fast food restaurants, we are confronted with the calorie count for every item on the menu, which follows the lead of supermarket food packaging.
Mandatory labelling of this information has been widely discussed since the start of the decade and almost all major worldwide chains, from Starbucks to Burger King, have been including these statistics on their menu boards, or as brochures. The data can make for sobering reading, especially for people who frequent certain brands because they claim to be healthier than the average fast food restaurant. As London Metro points out, the self-consciously healthy chain Leon’s chicken burger is loaded with 72 more calories than a McChicken Sandwich.
A number of startups have seen this gap in the convenient, healthy eating market and taken effective steps to fill it. The British company Huel offer nutritionally complete powdered food, which is entirely vegan and can be prepared in under a minute and has subsequently become immensely popular worldwide. The brand made a £14 million turnover in the UK last year, and by this summer, American demand for Huel is set to surpass the popularity in its home country.
Can fast food be good food?
While fast food chains aren’t likely to be making vegan shakes their priority menu item any time soon, some of the healthy menu options at outlets such as Chipotle and even McDonald’s are showing that at least some fast food items can work as part of a balanced diet. Unfortunately, there are fewer of these options which are also vegan-friendly, especially for meat-free diners looking to go beyond a simple salad. Enter the rising trend of vegan junk food, which offers meat-free versions of everyone’s fast food favorites, with all (and occasionally) of the calories we’ve come to expect.
However, newer chains such as LYFE Kitchen—started in 2011 by two former McDonald’s executives, and whose name stands for “Love Your Food Everyday”—have taken to careful product testing to strike their perfect balance between fresh ingredients and a healthy approach, whilst still offering all the convenience of traditional fast food.
A new process behind convenience foods
A recent study showed that over 50% of the food bought by British families is “ultra-processed”, making the UK the highest consumer of such foods in all of Europe. Not only are these foods higher in sugar and fat content, but the bulk method by which they are made also makes it near-impossible for them to contain any fruit or vegetables in any nutritionally-meaningful way.
Companies such as the aforementioned Huel—whose powdered food cut to the core when it comes to designing food which is simultaneously quick to prepare and dietarily balanced. As a result, it is not surprising that the once-frowned-upon world of ‘convenience food’ has seen something of a renaissance amongst those looking for healthy options. This is thanks in part to the nutritionally complete range of products from brands such as Huel leading the way in how we not only prepare but also consume our food.
So, whilst the long-held belief that nothing is healthier than cooking for yourself still stands, the fact that major brands are taking nutritional requirements into consideration shows that the future is looking increasingly healthy for convenience foods.