Slow Food for Thought: Is Fast Food on Its Way Out? by Kirby Wetzel, April 17 2015, 2 Comments

McDonald's sales are down for the fifth straight quarter. Seemingly, it’s a problem of less traction and better competition. “Fast-casual” chains—places that charge slightly more for “healthier” options—are having a moment. I say “healthier” because I believe the designation comes as a result of the fat content of “fast-casual” fare, which, to me, doesn't necessarily mean healthy. But, I digress.

In an effort to offer transparency to its consumers, McDonald’s started a video campaign to explain what goes into its food. In three minutes, a spokesperson explains the nineteen (NINETEEN?!) ingredients that comprise their famous fries. With the rise of “fast-casual” brands like Panera and Chipotle (restaurants that have recently been in the news for positive changes in their menus), releasing a video to acknowledge the ingredients in McDonald's french fries—a food I naively assumed contained only potatoes, oil, and salt—has left me scratching my head. Theirs was an interesting strategy as, it seems to me, consumers care less about fat grams these days and more about lengthy ingredient lists. And, nineteen seems to be about sixteen too many.

I wonder: is fast food on it’s way out? Short answer: I doubt it. The convenience of fast food is hard to beat. Not to mention, fast food is cheap. Healthy eating? Not so much. However, there is still hope! For many of us, our priorities have changed when it comes to food and that means fast food is looking less like a burger and fries in a grease-spotted paper bag. Fast food has taken on the “fast-casual” glow and is now a salad from Chipotle or a soup and sandwich combo from Panera. Consumers want to believe that they are feeding themselves and their families healthy options and that now includes organic, local, and antibiotic-free food.

Well, great news, folks! Many food chains have heard the pleas for reform and are making improvements to their ingredient lists—or, at the very least, eliminating the most noxious offenders. For example, Panera has vowed to eliminate artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives, and to stop using caramel color; Dunkin Donuts has promised to remove titanium dioxide—a whitening agent—from its powdered donuts; and Chipotle recently took a stand against their pork supplier for violating their “Responsibly Raised” standard.

In fact, McDonald’s is even getting on board. Just last month McDonald’s announced they would begin using chickens that are not raised with antibiotics. This could have positive effects for the entire industry as McDonald’s is one of the largest buyers of chicken in the nation. And, while their sales are down, McDonald’s is still one of the biggest fast food chains in the country. So, if they are making the change, there is hope that the last few holdouts will follow suit.

There is still much work to be done in the fast and “fast-casual” food industry, but the great news is that we are heading in the right direction. Restaurants are eliminating harmful ingredients and offering more transparency when it comes to ingredient lists. Got a problem? Speak up. They are listening. And that’s good for all of us.