What It Means When Kale Is Bad.

During the summer after my freshman year of college, I waitressed at a family restaurant called Eat ‘n Park. As a Pittsburgh institution, it is the place you go with family after a chorus concert or with friends after the Friday night football game or with a boyfriend before you’re 21. There food isn’t that great but they bake decent pies and serve breakfast all day. No matter, it still gives me comfort and a sense of home. Perhaps it is the sound the booths make while sliding in to sit down, the sticky plastic that covers the menus or the fact that they still have potato soup on Sundays. Minus new carpet, chairs and such and the elimination of the smoking section, not much else has changed. The same women that seated me in 1996 are still seating me in 2016. So when I was hired to work at one of the franchises, without any experience, I was excited to be a part of the Eat ‘n Park team.

I didn’t think about food as carefully as I do today. Most of the items on the menu, I wouldn’t eat myself but I still served plenty of hot roasted turkey sandwiches and Superburgers. Sometimes I came across customers who seemed to be a little bit concerned with what they were eating. One woman in particular immediately told me she was watching her weight and ordered a Diet Coke. When I brought the drinks over, she then ordered a chicken salad without croutons but asked if I would please bring over extra ranch dressing on the side. I delivered what they wanted and they left me a nice tip but I couldn’t help but think about why this woman would order a salad to be healthy and then drown it in dressing. It seemed likely that her salad was more fattening than an actual Superburger.

Now 14 years later, salad dressing is back on my mind. The media has been all a buzz the past few week with headlines that McDonald’s kale caesar salad (in Canada) has more calories than a Double Big Mac. I receive Google alerts for things like “kale” and normally when I see a lot of headlines that all say the same thing, I tend to ignore the articles — at least in the beginning.

The same went for this piece of news until last night after nearly a week of seeing the headline over and over, I thought to myself, “Why in the world would a restaurant make their kale salad with more calories than a hamburger?” You really have to do a lot to screw up one of the healthiest greens that badly. So I read the articles.

Here are the stats: the kale salad has 730 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 1,400 milligrams of salt, with the dressing. (And let’s be honest, I doubt McDonalds is massaging their kale, so the dressing is imperative unless you only want to eat cardboard). The double Big Mac with two beef patties and three pieces of bread (and to be honest probably a lot tastier if you’re into that kinda thing) has 680 calories, 38 grams of fat, and 1,340 milligrams of sodium. As Toronto dietitian Shauna Lindzon said, “Health-wise, I think it’s fat and sodium overload.”

And she’s right but before we all get bent out of shape, let’s call this for what it is. Another chance to make kale look bad, because the salad doesn’t have that many more calories than the burger. And the sodium is nearly milligram for milligram (which also happens to be almost 50% of our recommended daily intake of 2,300 milligrams), so did the media go a little far with the “make kale bad” headlines? Absolutely. Yet, there are a lot of other issues when a salad that people think is good becomes bad.

Image credit: CBC.ca

Good for you food in fast food — where do we draw the line?
How are we supposed to believe that McDonald’s is using kale as an ingredient to actually make people healthier? I’m doubtful. And here’s why. Last January, McDonald’s launched a campaign in the US called the “Unapologetic Big Mac” vowing to never serve kale. For a company that was dead set against kale and quinoa, they sure did change their mind quickly. In May 2015, they launched kale-breakfast items at select locations in LA and “The Salad Society” campaign in Canada which touts the flavors and ingredients in their new salad offerings. Happy people are munching away their happy salads in the happy sunshine. Guess what disappeared online around the same time? The anti-kale message.

They aren’t the only fast food chain coming away from the dark side. In early January 2016, Chick-fil-a, who had an almost 8 year long legal battle with Eat More Kale founder, Bo Muller-Moore, started offering a side kale salad as an alternative to fries. They even removed coleslaw from the menu all together, which had been a staple at the chain for years.

When can it get to a point where we can just call this for what it is (which is BS), and tell the fast food chains that they don’t need to include the trendy health food if it won’t be healthy. Both companies previous actions are proof that the health of their consumer is not top priority.

But money is. It’s not a revelation but right around the time the golden arches started to experiment with kale was also when their earnings had fallen for 6 straight quarters and their new CEO announced the turnaround plan. Out with McFlurries and in with coconut milk?

McDonald’s isn’t going to attract new consumers with a kale, quinoa or goji berries
I don’t have the data and McDonald’s is probably still calculating whether or not their healthy options are making a difference in their bottom line. Are they really bringing in any new customers with the kale salad? I doubt it. Unless I have not eaten in days and am stranded at a horrible rest-stop on the turnpike, I will not eat McDonalds. I think it would be interesting to see how many people are actually going to McDonalds that wouldn’t normally go because of “healthier” options that aren’t really healthy. I have a feeling that the people who are already eating kale don’t want to eat McDonald’s kale.

Who takes responsibility? The consumer or the business?
As with most food issues, it becomes the responsibility of the consumer on whether or not they should eat something. And while I agree with this to a certain extent, salads are perceived as healthy and as the better choice. But when someone is ordering a salad for one that is a size meant for 4 (cough cough Cheesecake Factory) or a salad with dressing that makes it higher in calories than the food item said person most likely was trying to avoid, I do not think that is the responsibility of the consumer. We aren’t all scientists and most of us have no concept of what a calorie really is or what the daily recommended intake is (mine is 2000, I had to Google it to find out and even then the chart is confusing). To be fair, McDonald’s has been ahead of the game when it comes to posting calories and nutritional information on menu items, but how much does it all makes sense to the every day person?

Existing customers are the ones who suffer
In the end, it is the existing customers that are affected. They already frequent McDonalds. Maybe once a week or twice. Or maybe it’s a special treat once a month. And maybe the next time they go, they’ll order the Big Mac like usual and a kale salad on the side since “Hey, it’s just a salad,” never realizing that they’ll have left two Big Macs heavier. It’s the teenage girl who is battling with her weight but doesn’t have access to fresh food or even knows how to cook. It’s the busy mom of three who in an effort to lose the last few pounds of baby weight, orders the salad instead, never thinking to double check whether the chicken is fried or grilled. Maybe it’s the stressed business exec with high cholesterol, who orders the salad because his doctor said to make “healthier” choices. They’re all losing out and I’m pretty sure, unlike my Eat ‘n Park friend from 2002, are not ordering the dressing on the side.

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