10 Fast Food Chains to Steer Clear Of

Stroke and heart-attack inducing portions of unhealthy fats, serious hygiene issues and animal cruelty should be enough to keep you away from these 10 fast food chains.

Given that the nature of fast food requires it to be quite literally thrown together by low-paid employees using low-quality ingredients, it’s hard to find reasons to ever get food there in the first place. But let’s say you sometimes get a hankering for a certain type of fried chicken sandwich and some piping hot fries, and you just can’t resist hitting up the drive-through on the way home from work or in the midst of a long car trip. You might appreciate knowing, first, that certain chains will turn around and use your money to fight against gay marriage, while others base their branding on sexist stereotypes. And let’s be real: most of them are just plain gross. Here are 10 of the absolute worst.

Chik-fil-A: Anti-Gay, Anti-Kale, Egregious Misspeller

If Chik-fil-A was aiming to offend as many people as possible and make themselves out to be a comic book-worthy villain, they’ve succeeded, between anti-gay sentiments and trying to destroy a guy who just really loves kale. Chik-fil-A has long funded anti-gay groups and propositions including “ex-gay therapy.” Then, in 2011, it sued a Vermont-based folk artist for selling t-shirts and bumper stickers that say “Eat More Kale,” alleging that the phrase might  get mixed up with their own advertising tagline, “Eat Mor Chik’n.” Because it’s so easy to confuse family-farmed kale with factory-farmed fried chicken.

If you do get a hankering for a fried chicken sandwich, Chik-fil-A style, you don’t have to resort to slinking guiltily through one of their fast-food drive-thrus (closed on Sundays, because they’re extra-godly.) Make yourself a “Chik-fil-Gay sandwich with the help of YouTube chef Hilah Johnson. It’s bound to be better than the real thing.

McDonald’s: Global Disseminator of High-Fat, Low-Nutrition Junk

It’s hard to even call the slop that McDonald’s serves by the billions around the world food when a burger they made in 1996 still looks exactly the same 16 years later. McDonald’s meals are loaded with fat, calories and sodium, with so little nutrition that your pets’ food might actually be a healthier choice. The fast-food kingpin processes almost a million cows per year into hamburgers, making it a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and supports the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. And have you ever wondered what’s in that secret sauce, anyway? 33 ingredients, including something called propylene glycol aginate.

Burger King: Dirtiest of All Fast Food Chains

Mmm – boot-flavored lettuce. We can’t lie to ourselves – the sort of thing that was documented in a photograph at an Ohio Burger King happens everywhere, including behind the closed doors of fine-dining restaurant kitchens. But recent headline-grabbing incidents aside, Burger King has repeatedly been deemed the dirtiest fast food chain of them all. A Dateline NBC investigation identified 241 critical health violations at 100 locations including employees not washing their hands, uncovered food in the fridge and grime and debris in the ice shoot. Furthermore, activists revealed in 2008 that Burger King has engaged in some tricky tactics to discredit efforts to improve horrific conditions suffered by migrant workers in Florida tomato fields.

Taco Bell: Low Quality Food, Racist Ads

This slinger of faux Mexican food actually came in last in the aforementioned Dateline NBC investigation with the least health violations out of 10 fast food chains, but that doesn’t mean it’s clean. Among the 91 violations discovered at 100 locations were dirty counters and rodent droppings. In November and December 2006, over 70 people in five states were sickened by bacteria-infested onions at Taco Bell restaurants. The chain is pushing a “fresh, healthy” angle with its new Cantina line, which attempts to mimic the higher quality food at the higher-end Chipotle chain. But while Chipotle uses hormone-free meats and organic produce when possible, Taco Bell skimps, and customers can tell: it consistently gets low quality food scores in customer surveys. Granted, the Cantina line hasn’t debuted just yet, but the same employees who toss around sloppy refried bean and nacho cheez Gorditas are going to be putting together those higher-end meals.

One thing Taco Bell has proven itself proficient at, other than convincing people that they want to eat tacos made out of Doritos: packing as many racial stereotypes into its advertising as possible.

KFC: Culinary Abominations Galore

Two words: Double Down. This disgusting monstrosity of a sandwich is now the very definition of fast food gluttony – a bacon and cheese sandwich encased in two hunks of fried chicken in lieu of bread. Its announcement on April Fool’s Day made it seem like a joke, but the sandwich was launched in the U.S. less than two weeks later. KFC is also responsible for the gastronomic abomination that is the Cheesy Bacon Bowl. In April, KFC had to pay out $8.3 million to the family of a little girl who was brain-damaged after contracting salmonella at one of its Australian branches. And of course, KFC has been the focus of a long-running PETA campaign called “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” and for good reason: employees at a KFC supplier were filmed kicking chickens and throwing them against a wall.

Arby’s: High Calories, Not so Clean

Does one human finger in a sandwich – proven not to be a planted hoax by a money-hungry customer with a lawsuit gleaming in his eye – reflect on an entire restaurant chain? It does when that chain has hundreds of critical health and sanitation violations under its belt. So not only do Arby’s employees fail to wash their hands, they also fail to retrieve pieces of said hands when they’re accidentally removed by the meat slicer. More than 70 people were sickened with salmonella after eating at a Georgia Arby’s in 2007.

Arby’s is home to some of the most calorific fast food items in the nation, including the 740-calorie Beef N’ Cheddar with Pepper Bacon sandwich, which has both cheese sauce and something called “red ranch sauce.”

Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s: Monster Calorie Burgers, Sexist Ads

Carl’s Jr. has distinguished itself by trying to make grease and messy, dripping chemical-laden sauces sexy with ad campaigns featuring women like Paris Hilton and Sports Illustrated cover model Kate Upton, wherein the women are seen as something to be devoured, too. Sister restaurant Hardee’s has had its own sexist ads, like one that says “Guys don’t bake.” Both brands rely on marketing themselves as “manly,”associating masculinity with massive stacks of low-quality meat.

While Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are the first fast food chains in the nation to offer turkey burgers, that’s hardly enough to make up for three of the unhealthiest fast food sandwiches in America: the Hardee’s Monster Thickburger (1420 calories), the Hardee’s Double Bacon Cheese Thickburger (1300 calories) and the Carl’s Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger (1520 calories.)

Wendy’s: Not as Healthy As You Think

With the help of a cute pigtailed mascot and a reputation that still hinges on a perception of old-fashioned quality after all these decades, Wendy’s is often considered to be one of the healthier fast food options. The truth is, Wendy’s is hardly healthier than its most-maligned competitor, McDonald’s, and it’s not even as clean. You might imagine that Wendy’s natural-cut sea salt fries sound like a refreshingly less-processed alternative to other fast food fries, but they actually have way more sodium at 630 milligrams in a large-sized serving. That’ll blow a huge hole in your recommended maximum daily intake of 2400 milligrams. The Triple Burger with Everything and Cheese is a more obviously unhealthy choice with 970 calories and 60 grams of fat, but you might not expect the Southwest Taco Salad to be as heart-attack-inducing as it is, with 645 calories, 38.5 grams of fat and 1565 milligrams of sodium.

Wendy’s came in at number three on Dateline NBC’s list of unsanitary fast food restaurants with 206 critical violations in 100 restaurants, including mice droppings on shelves and bare hands in contact with food.

Pizza Hut: More Unholy Food Combinations

Can’t decide between a fatty cheeseburger and a greasy slice of pizza? You’re in luck! At least, you are if you live in the Middle East, where Pizza Hut is offering a cheeseburger-stuffed pizza. British diners have access to an unholy pizza/hot dog mashup. But the Pizza Huts here in the states have plenty of their own unhealthy options, like the Triple Meat Italiano Pizza, which has 1,280 calories and 23 grams of fat.

And though it’s not on this list, Pizza Hut’s competitor Dominos deserves a mention thanks to its Chicken Carbonara Breadbowl Pasta, a giant wad of pizza dough topped with penne pasta, cream and cheese. It’s got 1,480 calories, 56 grams of fat and an amazing 2,220 milligrams of sodium – and yes, it’s meant for one person.

Jack in the Box: Marry Bacon. Or Don’t.

This chain was the setting for one of the most infamous fast-food-poisoning incidents of all time, an outbreak of E. coli that killed four children and sickened hundreds of people in 1993. Jack in the Box has upped its safety measures since then, implementing new testing mechanisms for the bacteria and increasing meat-cooking temperatures. But that doesn’t mean they’ve cleaned up their act altogether. They came in at number 6 on Dateline NBC’s list with 164 critical health and sanitation violations including several complaints of food-borne illness.

Jack in the Box isn’t trying to hide behind a facade of health at least. Ad Week called the chain’s “Marry Bacon” TV commercial” a love song to pig shavings, and that’s probably a nice way of putting it. In 2008, the nonprofit Cancer Project crowned Jack in the Box’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger “the most unhealthful” menu item available at fast food restaurants in America. It’s got 23 grams of fat, 860 milligrams of sodium and a whole lot of bacon – which, the dietitians behind the list note, is associated with increased colorectal cancer risk.

Long John Silver’s: Stroke in a Cardboard Container

If there’s any food item that should really, really be as fresh as possible when you eat it, it’s probably fish. After all, just a few days past its prime, fish starts to get awfully stinky. So the idea of a fast food restaurant serving fried fish is bad enough as it is – but it might also give you a stroke. A 2010 study linked high rates of fried fish consumption to the stroke belt in the South, where the death rate from strokes is abnormally high. There’s no doubt that fish can be good for you, but not when it’s covered in oily breading. And like many fast food restaurants, Long John Silver’s still uses trans fats to fry its greasy foods. Their food is almost oily enough to make you believe that this satirical story about the chain buying already-oiled fish from the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill is true.

Photo: keoni101

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.