The line at sweetgreen Union Square (photo: Anna Ottum)

Healthy Fast Food Is Not a Myth — If It’s Done Right

We read an article in the Washington Post the other day that made some claims about healthy fast food concepts like sweetgreen and LYFE Kitchen being “too good to be true,” indicting us for hooking customers by “rely[ing] on the junk-food trinity of fat, salt and sugar.” The article by Arun Gupta essentially slammed fast casuals for tricking consumers with a health halo and supported fast-food consumption for its speed, convenience and cost-per-calorie ratio.

We believe the article encourages a dangerous way of thinking. And quite frankly, this perspective is how we ended up with a broken food system in this country.

Today’s fast food is the result of a post-war industrialized food system — machines were built to process food quickly for growing families in the baby boom. Bread got more white, and vegetables got less natural. These practices grew popular because it got cheaper — and the system got better at marketing itself. But the thing is, fast food is barely food. It’s high in calories and low in nutrients. It’s not intended to nourish.

Newly released nutrition guidelines advocate consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat foods, and suggest limited consumption of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which are found in red meat, cheese, eggs and ice cream.

Fast food relies on calories to fill consumers, but not all calories are created equal. A calorie is a measure of energy, not nutrition. 100 calories of chocolate are not the same as 100 calories of nuts.

The article also teeters on vilifying fats in one blanket statement, but there are different types of fats — 5 grams of butter are very different from 5 grams of extra virgin olive oil. Plus, your body needs fat to support many of its functions. We embrace “healthy fats,” like avocado, extra virgin olive oil and nuts — items that have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are proven to have positive effects on cognitive function.

A discussion solely around fats and calories is shortsighted, and doesn’t consider the nutritional density of fiber, unsaturated fats and protein. Further, obesity has been linked not with fat or calorie consumption, but with sugar consumption.

One area we’ll agree with Arun Gupta on? The power of marketing. Food has become so much a part of the cultural zeitgeist that everyone wants in on it, and they’ll say whatever it takes to get a piece of that health halo. Everyone’s gotta eat, right? A brand can say its food is “clean” or “healthy” or “has integrity,” and that’s all great, but it doesn’t do much good for your health if your “ethically raised” chicken is beer-battered and fried or if your “clean” tuna salad is chock-full of mercury.

A sweetgreen date. (photo: Anna Ottum)

When you want healthy food, there are a few things to think about:

  • How much nutritional value the raw ingredient has
  • How it was raised or grown (sustainably, ethically, locally, etc)
  • How it’s prepared — is it fried, slathered in sauce, processed or doused in salt? Not a good sign.

These factors should be looked at holistically, and brands — those who claim to be healthy, as well as those who don’t — have a responsibility to provide more credible, transparent information to consumers so they understand what they’re eating.

At sweetgreen, we’re constantly evolving our recipes and supply chain — we vet our sources, we ensure we stand behind their processes and food safety measures. We receive food in its natural state in our stores, and we use simple recipes to add subtle flavor and texture, prepping our produce in-house. Our signature menu items have been optimized for flavor and nutrition — we’ve removed sugars, salt and unnecessary fat in the pursuit of making healthy eating fun and good for you. It’s food that fuels. Is it possible to build a sweetgreen salad that’s dense with fat? Yes, but that’s beside the point. The point is that we offer choice and empower consumers with information, but we don’t preach about what’s “right” — consumers decide what to eat.

Our mission is to be a catalyst for building healthier communities. Can sweetgreen end America’s obesity epidemic? Likely not. But can we, along with our like-minded friends at LYFE and other healthy concepts, change the way people think about food, and impact the state of the American food system? Absolutely. That’s why we’re here.

Part of our job is to feed people better food, and another part is to educate people about what that actually means. And while a $10 salad is more than a Big Mac, an angioplasty costs a hell of a lot more. Stories that champion fast food over plant-based food send a poor message to consumers and are simply irresponsible. We need to think sustainably about the health of individuals, communities and the planet. Change for the greater good will come not from alarmist articles, but from transparency, information and access to real, whole food.

— Jonathan, Nicolas, Nathaniel and the sweetgreen team

PS: If you have questions about our sourcing decisions or food, shoot us a note at (ama = “ask me anything”). We’ll happily nerd out over this stuff with you.

The source list at sweetgreen Union Square — every location keeps an updated list of farmers and growers. (photo: Anna Ottum)