We know most mall food is bad, we just know it-so why are we eating it?
After a long day of slogging through slow-moving crowds and sighing in disgust at the way fitting room lighting inexplicably adds 10 years and 20 pounds to your body, it’s no wonder you’re tired and irritable enough to console yourself with some mall food. But don’t just shuffle up to the nearest counter and blindly point. Not only are mall food courts rife with disturbing health violations, including trays that are dirtier than public toilets, they’re also packed with unhealthy, artery-clogging meals, snacks and beverages, often made with low-quality ingredients.
Found in nearly every mall across America, Cinnabon draws in drooling patrons with intoxicating, far-reaching aromas of cinnamon and sugar that activate our must-eat-junk-food-now impulses. Give in, and you’d better be prepared for what will come after, which is at best a diet-busting calorie explosion and at worst, a potential diabetic coma. There’s absolutely nothing low in calories and fat on the menu. The signature roll weighs half a pound and contains 670 calories and 34 grams of fat, but by far the worst item you could choose is the Caramel Pecanbon, a snack that will annihilate your daily calorie allowance with 900 calories and 41 grams of fat.
The word smoothie conjures visions of fresh fruit, yogurt, juice and nutritious add-ins like wheatgrass and hemp powder. But not all smoothies are created equal, especially at Smoothie King. This beverage chain proclaims itself to be the “healthy alternative to unhealthy food choices” – but be careful what you order. While they do have 38 smoothie options under 300 calories (in the 20 ounce size, as long as you say the words “make it under 300″ when you order, eliminating added sugar and juices), you might want to avoid the options they classify under “Indulge.” In the largest size they offer, 40 ounces, the Peanut Power Plus Grape smoothie has 1,460 calories and 42 grams of fat. Even worse is the Hulk Plus Strawberry, ironically listed under Shape Up, which packs 1,928 calories and 64 grams of fat. You’d have to be a bodybuilder or an Olympic athlete to burn that off.
Remember the days when Olive Garden made their own pasta, and many of their menu offerings were actually prepared in-house from relatively fresh ingredients? Probably not, because those days are long gone. Step into an Olive Garden kitchen and you’ll find cooks reheating frozen pre-breaded chicken patties, manicotti, ravioli, breadsticks, sauces and virtually everything else they serve. While it’s possible to eat relatively healthy here with options like minestrone soup and Venetian Apricot Chicken, most of this restaurant chain’s meals are packed with fat, calories and sodium. The Create Your Own Pizza appetizer has 930 calories, 28 grams of fat and 2,970 milligrams of sodium, for starters, and the Pork Milanese tops that with 1,510 calories, 87 grams of fat and 3,100 milligrams of sodium.
Olive Gardens will start popping up in even more malls in the coming months, as chain restaurants start taking advantage of empty retail space left behind by flailing department stores and other businesses. Depending on where you live, it’s likely that you’ve got a much more authentic Italian place nearby. FYI, Olive Garden doesn’t really have a cooking school in Tuscany where their “chefs” master Italian cooking techniques; they rent out a hotel for a couple weeks out of the year and generate fake quotes on behalf of their restaurant managers to garner local publicity. Olive Garden is to authentic Italian food as Cheez Whiz is to fine, aged Parmigiana Reggiano.
This is the place to get floppy, bland, oily triangles of dough, cheese and sauce bigger than your head, if that’s what you’re into. Sbarro has arguably some of the worst-quality pizza of any chain in America, especially when you factor in the likelihood of being handed a dried-out slice that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for a few hours. It’s just not worth it. While these quick food court bites won’t necessarily break your diet at about 300 calories a slice, avoid the stuffed sausage and pepperoni abomination: it’s got nearly 1,000, plus 47 grams of fat and 2,516 milligrams of sodium.
This Americanized, fast-food Chinese mall staple might seem like one of the best options at the food court, health-wise, and most of its offerings are definitely lower in calories than the fried chicken, pasta and pastries found elsewhere. But like most of the Chinese food found in America, Panda Express is laden with sugar and sodium, not to mention preservatives and artificial flavorings. It’s re-heated meat and veggies in thick corn syrup sauce. One of the most popular menu items, Orange Chicken, contains 500 calories, 810 milligrams of sodium and as much fat as 9 strips of Oscar Mayer bacon. The Broccoli Beef is a much better choice at 150 calories and 7 grams of fat.
We also wonder where all that chicken comes from?
The Olive Garden of ‘American-style’ food, T.G.I. Friday’s offers massive portions of overly salted, calorie-laden, generic food-like substances that came straight out of a walk-in freezer. This nationwide chain is often one of the only sit-down restaurant options in malls and can be a tempting retreat from all of the noise, activity and bright lights of the food court. But a Fitness Magazine perusal of the menu found just two meals under 500 calories, with most clocking in at over 1,000. Alongside Applebees, IHOP and Outback Steakhouse, T.G.I. Friday’s earned an F in Men’s Health‘s annual survey of America’s Unhealthiest Restaurants.
If you’re going to indulge in a carb-heavy snack, a soft pretzel is one of the most satisfying ways to do so. Just be aware that like the unreasonably enormous treats at Cinnabon, what you’re eating is more like a meal than a snack, and it’s probably going to make you feel sluggish afterward. The Glazin’ Raisin pretzel has over 500 calories and over 100 grams of carbohydrates. One Jumbo Pretzel Dog contains 610 calories, 29 grams of fat and 1,150 grams of sodium. Add salt and dipping sauces, and you’ll be well on your way to a battle with bad blood pressure.
Men’s Health named the Large Tuna Melt at Quizno’s the worst mall food in America, and it’s not hard to see why. When you get it with cheese and dressing, it packs in 1,820 calories, 147 grams of fat, 2,020 milligrams of sodium and 85 grams of carbs. Continuing the bacon comparison to give you an idea of just how much fat that is, you might as well sit down to 49 strips of greasy strips. So that’s why Quizno’s declined to reveal its nutritional information for so many years. If you’ve got the option of a Subway in the same mall, you’ll have access to much healthier choices.
Freestanding Taco Bells aren’t exactly known for offering high-quality or even mediocre food, and the ones located in mall food courts are no better. The “Mexican” food chain is notorious for numerous health violations in its restaurants all over the country, and food poisoning incidents like the one in 2006 that sickened over 70 people in 5 states. Taco Bell has attempted to improve its reputation lately with fresher “Cantina-style” offerings, but it’s still Taco Bell.
By now, even people who had never heard of Chick-fil-A in their lives are well aware of the restaurant’s controversial donations to anti-gay-marriage causes thanks to the recent hoopla that made fried chicken sandwiches into a symbol of intolerance. The chain also sued a kale farmer for producing t-shirts and other merchandise reading “Eat More Kale,” alleging that he was ripping off their “Eat More Chik’n” slogan. And on top of that, Chick-fil-A just really isn’t all that great. The Spicy Chicken Deluxe sandwich has 570 calories and enough sodium to take up your entire daily intake. Chick-fil-A’s grilled nuggets meal might sound like a good choice for kids, but it has the same amount of cholesterol as a Big Mac.
Photo: The Pizza Review