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Top 10 ‘healthier’ fast food chains, as chosen by consumers

By Robert Passikoff | Founder and President

June 10, 2022 | 5 min read

Research consultancy Brand Keys asked 2,800 consumers to identify the top 10 fast-food chains they perceive as healthy alternatives to their greasy, fat-filled counterparts. Brand Keys president and founder Robert Passikoff unpacks the reasons behind consumers' picks, fast food’s health-focused evolution — and one candidate that should have made the list.

Whether it’s due to brands’ strategies, consumers’ decisions, or both, fast food has ameliorated its reputation in the public eye.

While the “health food” category has been around for years, only recently did it delineate itself as something between a “quest for fitness” and “nutrition.” And most recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the category has repositioned itself again into a weight-loss solution.

a presumably "healthy" fast food burger

/ Adobe Stock

Working from home may have its perks, but the constant availability of snack foods and Grubhub deliveries was not one of them. It didn’t help that the gyms were closed either. We’ll take your word for it that you were going to the gym religiously before COVID.

You’re not alone in your quest to lose the quarantine 15. Harvard Medical school looked at the weight changes of 15 million patients for one year over the course of the pandemic. Their findings delivered no surprises. People gained weight. About 39% of the group gained over two pounds, while approximately another 39% gained 12 pounds or more.

And, as we enter summertime, folks are more concerned about their beach bodies, which has resolved itself into a combination of visiting the now-opened gyms, inhaling deeply, and eating more healthy food, including fast food.

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Now here’s the thing. Fast food has a well-deserved reputation for being laden with saturated fat, carbs, and sugar. But today, almost every fast food restaurant offers healthy options, including vegetarian options. You just have to peruse the menu to find them.

And I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, what a pain in the ass to have to pay attention to calorie counts and saturated fat, sugar, and sodium grams.” And you’d be right. I’m sorry about that, but pay attention you must, if you want to “eat healthy.” Also, in the case of fast and fast-casual food brands, there’s a lot more that contributes to brand engagement no matter what consumers say.

To make it easier to find your next quick, healthy meal, we at Brand Keys conducted a survey of 2,806 consumers to see which brands are delivering against their expectations for “healthy” food. Here they are:

1. Chipotle

2. Chick-fil-A

3. Panera Bread

4. Wendy’s

5. KFC

6. Sweetgreen

7. Dunkin’

8. Starbucks

9. Papa John’s

10. Subway

Not-so-coincidentally, all have an array of healthy options to choose from. Although we haven’t parsed all their menus, like I said earlier, you can find something healthy at most fast-food restaurants.

But here’s a funny thing. You know who deserves to be on the list? Taco Bell. Yes, the brand that has been the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes for a long time. But it turns out the brand has some of the healthiest options around.

And no, not a joke, although you do have to read the menu and their nutrition page to find them. They’ve made several health improvements over the past few years, including a push to reduce sodium across the menu by 25% by 2025. They’ve accomplished 18% of that goal already. They’ve also removed artificial colors and flavors and replaced them with natural alternatives. So yeah. Taco Bell.

There’s a Yiddish saying that goes, “Health is a relationship between you and your body.” These days, consumers are extending that relationship to restaurant brands that better meet their emotional engagement expectations for, well, everything that drives loyalty in their respective categories.

But as regards, this one particular value, it’s worth noting that while healthy food is generally more expensive than food traditionally processed or sourced, it appears that both customers and brands are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

Robert Passikoff is the founder and president of Brand Keys.

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