The new “healthy” fast food items taste bad (and aren’t so healthy either).

Be it hangover cure, road-trip fuel, or lunchtime guilty pleasure, I have always been a sucker for salty, greasy, finger-lickin’-good, run-for-the-border-to-have-it-my-way fast food. Recently, however, I’ve started to feel guilty about eating at fast food restaurants. Sure, the obesity lawsuits brought against McDonald’s were laughed out of court in less time than it takes to digest a No. 2 Value Meal, but with nearly two-thirds of Americans overweight, 30.5 percent considered obese, and 2,500 Americans dying from heart disease every day, I can no longer blissfully ignore the facts: Fast food kills.

Apparently I am not the only one getting the message. Diet and health industries are thriving, half the people you know are on Atkins or the South Beach diet, and in order to stay profitable (and presumably to avoid further lawsuits), McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Wendy’s have all recently tacked on putatively healthy items to their menus. (Rather than trouble themselves with a new healthy menu line, KFC launched a featherbrained ad campaign comforting consumers with the news that “they can enjoy fried chicken as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”)

But are these new lighter options tasty enough to change our eating habits? And are they actually healthy? Is the Big Mac doomed to extinction?

Though I’ve always believed in the dictum once quoted to me by a chef that “fat is where the flavor’s at,” I decided to set my skepticism aside and taste-test some of these new lower-fat foods. Rather than branching out into unknown territory (though they all now offer lower-fat and lower-calorie items, I’ve never been a big fan of Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, or Blimpie), I decided to stick to my usual fast food triumvirate of Mickey D’s, the BK Lounge, and Taco Hell. Curious to see how the new fare would fare against stalwarts like the Big Mac, Whopper, and Gordito, I set my sights on the McDonald’s premium salads, Burger King’s grilled chicken baguettes, and Taco Bell’s “Fresco Style” menu items (which are the same as its regular menu items, except that fat-filled cheese and sauces are replaced with pico de gallo salsa).

A recent New York Times article by Marion Burros heralded the arrival of the new “healthful” menu items from all the major fast food chains mentioned above: “Some of this food was quite edible. Most gave healthy food a bad name.” Based on my own “research,” I’d say that aside from the obviously not healthy Cobb salad at McDonald’s, the new menu items were almost inedible and for the most part revolting. I found it nearly impossible to get beyond the third bite. At least when I chug down an O’Doul’s, it still tastes like a beer.

Burger King’s Smoky Barbecue Chicken Baguette, unleashed from its wrapper

Burros proclaims Burger King’s Smoky Barbeque and Santa Fe chicken sandwiches the “winners” of the new healthy crop. But feast your eyes on this Smoky Barbeque sandwich for a moment. And remember, eye appeal is half the meal.

Under the hood
Plastic Surgery: As pictured on Burger King’s Web site

Burger King’s chicken baguette ad campaign promises “flavor from grilling, not from fat.” At least they seemed to be moving away from painting the meat with faux grill stripes, à la Mighty Dog brand dog food. Still, the chicken, albeit eerily tender, tasted as if it had been boiled and treated with some kind of fabric softener. There was flavor, but it didn’t seem to come from grilling. More likely it resulted from the whopping 1,450 milligrams of sodium—more than three orders of Supersize McDonald’s french fries. Plus, the sandwich’s topping, a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, was sweet, sticky, and nausea-inducing, and the baguette it was served on was mushy, bland, and undercooked.

With the chicken sandwich baguette line, Burger King offers two different value-meal options: One comes with a bottle of water and a side salad, the other with a soft drink and medium fries. Who has the will power to resist ordering the fatty option? “Hey, I’m eating a healthy low-fat sandwich! A few fries won’t kill me!” Indeed, a study by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity in 2002 showed that “fast-food bundling generally steers customers toward calorically-dense, low-nutrition foods like French fries and soda, rather than toward healthier options such as salads and yogurt parfaits.” Creating value meals by combining seemingly healthy items with unhealthy items like fries and soft drinks, as Burger King does, lets people continue to make bad eating decisions while feeling as if they are doing something healthy.

Taco Bell’s “Fresco Style” option can be applied to any of Taco Bell’s menu items. Though this did reduce the fat in my grilled steak soft taco from 17 to 5 grams, and the calories from 280 to 170, the taco was extraordinarily soggy and tasted a little bland. It wasn’t horrible compared to the original, but it made me wonder if one can really call something a “taco” if no cheese is involved. My biggest mistake was getting suckered into ordering the Zesty Chicken Border Bowl (thinking it was Taco Bell’s answer to Atkins), an artery-clogging culinary atrocity featuring 42 grams of fat and 730 calories.

A bunch of bowl: More fat and calories than a Big Mac

The new McDonald’s salads ran the gamut in taste from nearly inedible to almost delicious. The salad line leaps dramatically in taste when one moves from the salty, arid, and bland Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad (the option lowest in fat and calories of all the chicken salads, with 210 calories and 7 grams of fat)—which is sprinkled with plastic-tasting Parmesan cheese flourished with frisée and topped with Newman’s Own low-fat balsamic vinaigrette (with 40 calories and 3 grams of fat of its own)—to the surprisingly tasty Crispy California Cobb, which comes with blue cheese, bacon bits, and hard-boiled egg (as well as 380 calories and 23 grams of fat). Adding the packet of butter-and-garlic croutons that accompanies the Cobb salad (50 calories, 1.5 grams of fat) and the Newman’s Own ranch dressing (290 calories, 30 grams of fat) made the numbers skyrocket to 720 calories and 54.5 grams of fat. Predictably, the Crispy Chicken California Cobb was the only salad for which I’d consider a trip back through the Golden Arches, but then I might as well have eaten what I wanted in the first place: a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a medium fries—160 more calories, but 3.5 fewer grams of fat.

Fat is where the flavor’s at: California Cobb (left) vs. Chicken Caesar

But McDonald’s is going a step beyond salad. They have recently hired Oprah’s personal trainer, exercise physiologist Bob Greene, to promote their new “Go Active” meals (currently being tested in Indiana)—Happy Meals for adults—which will include a salad, an exercise booklet, and a pedometer meant to encourage walking. A pedometer? I predict these will get about as much long-term use as the plastic toys that come in the kids’ Happy Meals. (This also makes you wonder: Why isn’t there a single healthy option being marketed to children, a susceptible—and overweight—audience? Why not revamp the old McDonaldland characters as healthier, up-to-date versions: Grimace becomes a svelte purple hottie, Grimace D’Lite; Mayor McCheese gets promoted to Governor McLean.)

Yet the smartest healthy move McDonald’s has made is actually replacing the Chicken McNugget with a new version that contains lower-calorie, lower-fat all-white meat. With 260 calories down from 310 calories, and 16 total grams of fat down from 20 grams, the new six-piece McNuggets tasted as good as, in fact better than, the processed mixture of light- and dark-meat McNuggets I once knew.

According to McDonald’s sales figures, the new healthy approach is working. Third-quarter earnings were up 12 percent, attributed largely (so claimed McDonald’s press releases) to these new menu options. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to simply reduce the calorie and fat count of their entire menu? Since I began ordering the Quarter Pounder with cheese in the mid-1970s, America’s total daily calorie intake has increased by 10 percent, and McDonald’s has begun supersizing everything. Isn’t the better way to stave off the obesity epidemic to eliminate the gigantic portions and reduce fat in side items like french fries?

If America’s major fast food chains are going to succeed in trimming the corpulent beast they helped create, they’ll need to do more than simply add a few unpalatable palliatives to their menus. They should continue lowering the fat of the items we already love (as McDonald’s has done with Chicken McNuggets) and find a way to make these new so-called low-fat and low-calorie alternatives not only healthier, but tastier as well.