Almost 40% of Americans patronize a fast food restaurant at least once a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maybe some people actually frequent these chains in search of a healthy meal, but research shows that most people choose such places because they’re cheap and convenient (“fast,” in a word), and because they just happen to like eating burgers and fried chicken and tacos and the rest of the items that fast food establishments offer.
Fast food menus have evolved in recent years, however. Spurred by competition from small but growing “healthy grab-and-go” chains like Sweetgreen, Dig Inn, By Chloe, and Salad and Go, major players like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Dunkin’ Donuts are adapting.
Sometimes, new initiatives at these chains are focused on sustainability and the phasing out of artificial ingredients. Taco Bell, for instance, has pledged to start using cage-free eggs, while McDonald’s has started sourcing chicken raised without antibiotics. And just about all the major fast food chains have added, and are promoting, menu items lower in calories, fat, sodium, and sugar than their typical fare.
From Popeyes’ blackened chicken tenders, made with no breading or batter, to Tim Horton’s modestly proportioned Wrap Snackers, to the fresh salads offered by almost everybody these days, it is now possible to find at least some healthy alternatives at almost every fast food outlet.
Nonetheless, a survey conducted in 2017 by brand advisory firm Deloitte found that 83% of Americans surveyed believed that traditional fast food menus (as opposed to those at the grab-and-go chains) did not offer enough healthy choices. If the companies behind the country’s most popular fast food restaurants would respond to market demand, this situation may well change.
In the meantime, it’s possible to find at least a few healthy items at virtually every fast food restaurant. Is it likely that the average customer will go to one of these and order only the low-cal, low-fat options? Probably not, but at least they’re there — apple slices instead of fries with that burger, grits instead of mac ‘n cheese with that fried chicken — to help make the overall experience a little less deleterious.
To identify the healthiest option at every major fast food chain in the United States, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the nutritional contents of every item on their menus. To compare each item, we created an index of calories, fat, salt, and sugar. Foods with relatively few calories, sodium, sugar, and fat compared to other items offered by the same restaurant received higher scores. Only food items intended for single individual consumption were considered. Sides, garnishes, and kids’ items were excluded (unless, in the latter case, they can be ordered individually by adults wishing smaller portions).