Foodie Underground: Can Fast Food Be ‘Real’ Food?

ColumnAn interview with Burger King’s Executive Chef.

The food coverage approach at EcoSalon can be summed up as: “Good food, from good places, with good people.” That can be broadly interpreted, but as the Foodie Underground columnist I get the chance to take a look at the food movement from the perspective of food lovers. After all, “from supper clubs to mini farmers’ markets to beyond…weekly!” was the original thrust of this column. So I was intrigued when I was approached by Burger King to interview the fast food chain’s Executive Chef John Koch. With a new bacon-related launch – we’re living in a “Bacon Nation,” I’ve been told – they had most likely come across one of my various references to bacon-wrapped-anything that has topped foodie menus over the course of the last two years.

Being someone who, for the most part, strictly abstains from fast food, I was interested to see what someone who plans the menu of a nationwide chain had to say about the process behind what they serve, where it comes from and its nutritional value. I agreed to an interview and found myself one early morning on a Skype call with the man behind the Chef’s Choice Burger, which includes new and improved bacon, as well as a variety of other moves that Burger King is making towards what they deem in a press release as “real food.”

“Bacon is also a “real food,” which is another big trend right now. We are becoming more aware of additives and heavy processing. We’re moving toward clean foods, foods and ingredients we recognize and can pronounce. Real foods.”

But what does “real food” mean to a nationwide chain known for pumping out highly processed, highly caloric meals? When it comes to bacon, at least, it means that Burger King is stepping it up in the fast food realm, opting for naturally smoked meat as opposed to “spray on smoke.” (This is how some fast food chains achieve that smokey flavor.)

An interview with Burger King’s executive chief and columnist Anna Brones.

Koch cites Burger King’s efforts towards selling “real food” with such examples as “eggs [prepared] in house every day” and “domestically sourcing” all bacon. What that means is that other restaurants are doing the opposite, warming up pre-made eggs and importing their bacon from abroad. But simply because Burger King is taking a step away from such a direction, is what they’re doing really very forward, let alone enough to make a significant change in the food system?

I turned to Jeff Harvey, President and CEO of Burgerville, a Pacific Northwest-based chain food restaurant with 38 locations (soon to be 39) in Oregon and Washington. In the Northwest, they’re known for their seasonal milkshakes – blackberry is an annual hit – as well as their commitment to locally-sourced ingredients.

Burgerville’s model is based on creating personal relationships with farmers in the area, working with growers to understand who they are and what they can provide and then introducing them to Burgerville’s distribution partner, Sysco.

“It’s not a moral thing, not an ethical thing, it’s a business thing,” says Harvey.

Their burgers are made with pastured, vegetarian-fed and antibiotic-free beef from local farms. The chain partners with companies like SeQuential Biofuels, which recycles cooking oil into biofuels and in 2007 helped the chain convert used oil into 39,750 gallons of biodiesel. Burgerville also purchases wind power credits equal to 100 percent of their electricity use. The chain’s efforts get it plenty of accolades in the sustainable business community.

But is such a model a viable option for larger fast food chains?

“Do we believe you can expand that model? For us the answer is yes. Is it economically feasible? I think that is a big question in terms of how companies have built their model,” says Harvey.

Ultimately, the chosen model depends on the goal of a food provider. “The commitment to local only works if the [company’s business] model is intended to build vitality and sustainability in the local marketplace. You do need genuine relationships to accomplish that. You can’t do that if you’re a nationwide chain,” says Harvey.

Going local, after all, means a commitment to production on a much smaller scale, something that isn’t possible for nationwide chains.

“If everybody in the world, especially the big players, declares ‘local is our thing’ … that should raise concerns to people. When you are committed to local you are committed to lower capacity. If you start to push local beyond what the capacity of the land is you move beyond sustainability,” says Harvey.

If the model can’t be changed, what opportunities do larger chains have for improvement? A clear option is the nutritional value of what they’re serving. Americans spend nearly $100 billion on fast food a year, and with an ever-expanding obesity rate, the impact that fast food chains could have on public health is clearly correlated.

Are the current efforts anywhere near to enough?

As Christina Munsell, a registered dietitian and research assistant at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, points out, the degree to which fast food is at fault for the state of health in America, “is impossible to quantify, but is definitely a factor.”

For Burger King, when it comes to nutrition, as Koch told me, the company follows the guidelines of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a “total diet approach.” For Burgerville, it’s about offering a variety of choices so that guests can opt for smaller portion sizes. In short, the responsibility of healthy eating is on the customer.

The problem with focusing on calories alone, however, is that it detracts our attention from a more holistic approach to food. A strip of bacon may only have 70 calories, but that isn’t the only indicator of how it is going to influence our health. As with all foods, where it comes from, how it has been processed and how we eat it all have an impact on our health.

An active individual, I could probably loosely interpret the “in moderation” guideline, because as Koch notes, the quantity of bacon cheeseburgers that I can eat with a good conscience depends on my output. But even with a week of 30 miles of running under my belt, I wouldn’t go near one, and the reason for that goes far beyond calories. Read Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, and calories all but cease to count.

So how many fast food bacon cheeseburgers should you be eating? In my mind, the frank answer is zero; the national fast food chain system, no matter how improved, by nature makes it impossible to truly focus on locally-sourced ingredients or supporting regional producers in a meaningful way. And, if you care about where your food comes from, this should be your first red flag. Beyond that, there are too many negatives attached to the fast food industry in general, from how ingredients are sourced to the inevitable labor and environmental consequences, as well as the security issues of producing standardized, inexpensive food on a mass scale.

Just because you can “Build it Your Way” doesn’t mean you should.

Image: Håkan Dahlström, star5112, Pink Sherbet Photography

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.