How fast food chains are feeding on healthy diets

Despite higher prices, consumers willing to pay more for healthy options

American eaters want fast food made with fresh produce and better-for-you ingredients.

Eighteen percent of Americans reported health as a top concern, second only to the economy (22 percent), according to Nielsen data. And fast food restaurants are feeding the demand with nutritious options, while traditional chains continue to adapt.

Mediterranean Salsa Verde Chicken at Leon. (Courtesy of Leon).

“Within the restaurant industry, healthy is no longer a buzzword ⁠⁠— it's a necessary component for meeting today's consumer needs and preferences,” Jeff Williams, senior vice president of retail services at Nielsen told FOX Business. “Consumers are striving to live healthier lifestyles and therefore hungry for healthier food options."

The Seoul Burger, made with a beet-root patty at Leon. (Courtesy of Leon).

Popular London-based chain LEON, which bills itself as offering “naturally fast food,” opened its first locations in downtown Washington, D.C., in September with plans for national expansion in the coming months. It offers Mediterranean inspired items like falafel wraps, vegan burgers and salads. Its Seoul meatless burger, made with a beetroot patty with kimchi, costs $7.97. To compare, a burger at McDonald’s is costs about $3.79, and Shake Shack charges $5.29 for a ShackBurger.

Despite higher menu prices, consumers seem to be willing to pay more for healthy options. A Nielsen Global Health & Wellness Survey that polled more than 30,000 people in 2015 found that 88 percent said they’d shell out more money for healthier food.

Customized menus and niche diets 

More Americans are striving to live healthier lifestyles by following niche diets. Indeed, 37 percent now follow a specific diet, such as Keto, Paleo or Whole 30, which is up 8 percentage points from 2016, according to Nielsen data. And of those diets that are low in carbs, sugar, sodium and high in protein and fiber were on the rise.

At Leon, diners can filter their dietary restrictions via the chain’s online ordering menu with options like “I don’t eat gluten” or “I’d like a meal under 500 calories.” And other chains have tailored menus to capitalize on niche diets, particularly around the New Year when people are making resolutions to eat better. Chipotle rolled out its ketogenic diet-friendly bowls – a diet that relies heavily on grass-fed meat, fish and vegetables – with salad bowls loaded with protein in the form of carnitas pork, peppers, onions and tomato salsa without its signature rice and beans combo since grains and legumes are not permitted in the diet.


Similarly, West Coast-based burger chain In-N-Out started offering a secret menu with keto options that swap out buns for a lettuce wrap. And Chic-fil-A has a keto-friendly menu that offers less than 10 grams of carb, like a grilled chicken sandwich without the bun, or a sausage egg and cheese minus the biscuit, to eaters so they can stay on track with their diets.

Chick-fil-A started offering a keto-friendly menu. 

Others have committed to cleaner food options.

Panera Bread promoted its breakfast sandwiches earlier this year as made with 100 percent real eggs. It had a leg up on the competition since some chains serve frozen egg sandwichs, which often come made with additives like soybean oil, xantham gum and whey to help preserve them.

When considering the better-for-you option to order when dining out at a fast-food chain, registered dietician and nutritionist Sharon Zarabi says look at the ingredients list and keep in mind that less is more.

“Try and stick with foods with minimal ingredients. Vegetable patties, veggie burgers, and most of the imposter meats have the same amount of fat and sodium as a typical hamburger, so it's important to read the nutrition facts in the fast-food chain websites,” Zarabi said.

Items like grilled chicken sandwiches served without mayo (370 calories, 7 grams of fat at Burger King); a half-size Harvest Chicken Salad from Wendys (320 calories, 15 grams of fat); and grilled chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A (185 calories, 3.5 grams of fat), are a better-for-you bet when browsing the menu at traditional fast food restaurants.

The Business of Food explores the rapidly changing $1.5 trillion food industry every Tuesday on FOX Business.