How “Fast Casual” Is Changing How We Eat Fast Food

Nystudio/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Nystudio/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Fast food: The phrase brings to mind images of burgers, fries and drive-thru service. It’s hard to imagine a time when consumers couldn’t get a hot meal in seconds, pay for it in pocket change and feel full and satisfied. In 60 years, fast food has become as much a part of the American culture as baseball and apple pie. In fact, Gallup research has found 8 in 10 Americans eat at a fast food restaurant at least monthly, and 57 percent of young adults report eating it at least weekly.

However, the traditional fast food most people grew up with is evolving — due in large part to young people who are more conscious of what they’re eating and who want food that is healthier, less processed and more sustainable. A new type of restaurant, known as fast casual, has emerged to meet this demand and appears to be making a significant impact on the quick-service food industry.

What exactly is a fast casual restaurant? How "Fast Casual" Is Changing How We Eat Fast Food - Fast casual restaurants straddle the line between traditional, counter-service fast-food restaurants and casual dining establishments with table service. They have many of the elements that make fast food appealing, including immediate service, take-out or eat-in options and low prices, but fast casual eating establishments have other features that set them apart.

Interior designs often show a sense of sustainability and community, by using reclaimed wood and repurposed materials, displaying work by local artists and including communal dining tables.

The trend at fast casual restaurants is for transparency in ingredients, a desire to be more socially responsible and a commitment to source local food (including, in some places, locally produced beer and wine) that is often organic, grass-fed and antibiotic- and hormone-free.

The Concept Gains Popularity

The fast casual concept isn’t new. Chains like Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain have been in business since the 1980s, and Chipotle Mexican Grill opened the first of its 1,900 restaurants in 1993. In recent years, the concept has gained momentum, with chains and local eateries appealing to those seeking alternatives to traditional fast food.

According to Euromonitor, the fast casual market has grown by 550 percent since 1999, with an estimated $21 billion spent in 2014. While that’s a small amount of the more than $190 billion in annual revenue from U.S. fast food restaurants overall, the numbers are predicted to grow. Nielsen has found that about one-third of consumers will pay more for healthier ingredients, and the National Restaurant Association reports 76 percent of adults will return to a restaurant that offers healthier options.

LYFE Kitchen is a growing fast casual chain whose founders include two former McDonald’s executives. An acronym for Love Your Food Everyday, LYFE stresses there is something for every taste and type of diet on its menu, with minimally processed offerings and flavors enhanced by seasonal herbs and produce. Although LYFE Kitchen doesn’t market itself as “healthy,” its menu items contain fewer than 600 calories and 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

Toronto-based Freshii offers a similar concept, with a diverse, customizable menu that features wraps, salads, quinoa bowls and fresh juices and smoothies. One of the best-selling items on Freshii’s menu is the Pangoa Bowl — a colorful mix of brown rice or quinoa with kale, avocado, black beans, aged cheddar, corn, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, lime and barbecue sauce, which can be “energized” with a choice of protein.

Sweetgreen, a fast casual chain with more than 30 restaurants, focuses on creative and seasonal salads made with locally sourced ingredients. Some of the company’s core values — to think sustainably, keep it real and make an impact — demonstrate the approach and philosophy of many fast casual restaurants.

But not all establishments promise a low-calorie or plant-based menu. New York City-based Shake Shack offers antibiotic-, hormone- and GMO-free burgers, hot dogs and shakes.

What’s in Store for Fast Food?

Consumers’ changing tastes and the growing fast casual sector are influencing many of the original fast-food giants. “There is much going on behind the scenes to improve the nutritional quality of fast food menus and meet consumer demands,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting. Miller has run the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative since 2010. Composed of 36 operator members — including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC, which together feed more than 100 million Americans each day — the group works on initiatives to develop strategic calorie design, reduce sodium and add more produce and whole grains to create healthier menu items.

“We want consumers to know that our menu changes have been going on quietly, but for a number of years,” says Rachel Huber, MPH, RDN, senior nutritionist at Pizza Hut. The company is establishing new brand standards and has removed trans fat, artificial flavors and colors and monosodium glutamate from its products. Pizza Hut also is working to reduce sodium in many recipes. “The challenge is to simplify ingredients while maintaining the flavors that our customers love and expect,” Huber says.

At Taco Bell, in addition to simplifying ingredients, the chain has developed an entire menu of vegetarian options and was the first quick-service restaurant to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association. Taco Bell offers 13 AVA-certified menu items and 35 AVA-certified ingredients — 26 of which are vegan. McDonald’s, the largest fast food chain in the U.S. in terms of sales, also is listening to customers. In addition to reducing sodium and switching to healthier ingredients in some products, McDonald’s is targeting the health of a major audience — children — by adding whole-fruit clementines and yogurt to Happy Meals. In addition, McDonald’s has announced plans to provide milk produced without the artificial growth hormone rBST and to purchase chickens raised without antibiotics by 2017. The company also will transition to sourcing only cage-free eggs.

Quick-service restaurants are an important part of the American dining experience and lifestyle. As consumer preferences for traditional fast food and newer fast casual restaurants continue to evolve, the industry is working to keep pace with health and dining trends, taking important steps to meet demand. “Any change toward healthier ingredients,” says Miller, “has a major impact on public health.”

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Anne Danahy
Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, is a wellness dietitian and nutrition communications consultant who specializes in women's health and healthy aging. She blogs at Craving Something Healthy. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.