The Latest Fast Food Trend Isn't What You'd Think

Photographed by Eric Helgas.
Have you noticed a lot of chatter about changes to fast-food menus recently? Yesterday, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut announced they are phasing out artificial flavors and colors. Panera recently committed to removing over 150 ingredients from its menu by 2016. Chipotle has said it will remove GMOs from its ingredients. McDonald’s is phasing out use of human antibiotics in chicken, and Subway has promised to remove azodicarbonamide (an ingredient dubbed the "yoga mat chemical") from its bread. Why are all these changes happening at once, and what do they mean for us?

Mark Brandau, author of Technomic’s recent white paper, “Food Industry Transformation: The Next Decade,” told us, “You can’t point to one singular event for giving the natural-food movement this kind of momentum.” There have been a combination of social, cultural, and economic changes that have led to this tipping point. Books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, and powerful documentaries such as Super Size Me and Food Inc. have awakened people to issues in the fast-food model. Fast-casual restaurants, like Chipotle and Panera, have had a huge effect on making higher-quality “food with integrity” widely available at a price most people can afford. Couple that with changing consumer attitudes, and you have the perfect storm to incentivize companies to make these kinds of changes.

Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nation's Restaurant News, sees something else at work. “This is all an attempt to capture the hearts of millennials,” he says. “The big chains are trying to figure out how to stay relevant with a younger audience. They want to serve food that is more ideologically in line with millennials, who are more interested in understanding the origins of their food than their elders [were].” The reasons for the changes are also monetary: A recent report in Fortune Magazine points to big losses and a mounting distrust of Big Food. An analysis by Credit Suisse’s Robert Moskow found that that “big” had become “bad,” and that the top 25 U.S. food and beverage companies have lost an equivalent of $18 billion in market share since 2009. The market is sending a clear message to these companies: Adapt, or die.

What does all this change mean for you — aside from better ingredients and more transparency? While Chipotle and Panera say they don’t expect to see an increase in pricing, chances are you will see a slight uptick. “Foods that meet the standard for ‘local’ or ‘organic’ — or that are grown without the use of antibiotics or hormones — usually carry a higher cost, and restaurants often can recoup some of that with higher menu prices,” Brandau tells us. But, we’re getting what we pay for. Are we willing to shell out cash if it means eating food prepared without yoga-mat chemicals? “Our consumer research consistently shows that people are willing to pay a little bit more for the peace of mind that a restaurant meal won’t be loaded with unnatural ingredients they don’t want to put in their bodies.”

As for the future of big food, significant changes like these trickle down to smaller players. For instance, Panera’s suppliers have agreed to reformulate their recipes to comply with their “No-No List,” as have many of Chipotle’s. This whirlwind of change adds up to one epic moment in food history. You may not see grass-fed burgers on freshly baked, heirloom-wheat buns at McDonald’s tomorrow, but there's hope on the horizon.
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