Refried beans, soup, risotto, cheese and cornbread — those items may seem like innocuous vegetarian foods, but a lot of restaurants integrate animal fat or meat-based broths into them. (And, in case you didn’t know, many cheeses, including Parmesan, contain rennet, which is cultivated from calf stomach.) If you’re a vegetarian, how do you know what you’re really eating?
For instance, Husk Restaurant’s cornbread is made with bacon fat — that’s why it tastes so good — but the menus at its locations in Greenville, South Carolina, and Nashville read as if it might be vegetarian (those dishes don’t contain bacon crumbles), but at its sites in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, explicitly list bacon on the menu.
Cracker Barrel’s corn muffins contain bacon drippings, but it isn’t mentioned on the menu. On the other hand, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles and Dirty Bird’s cornbreads are free of animal fat. But how is a consumer really supposed to know?
10 up-and-coming healthy fast food chains
10 up-and-coming healthy fast food chains
Leon — a European fast food chain that's coming to the US
The London-based fast-food chain Leon offers wraps, salads, sandwiches, and bowls made from fresh ingredients.
Launched in 2004, Leon now has almost 50 restaurants in the United Kindom and Netherlands. After a $31 million funding boost in 2017, the company announced it will expand to the US market.
Leon founders John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby, and Allegra McEvedy have said that their long-term goal is to become more valuable than McDonald's.
Salad and Go — A drive-thru salad chain
Salad and Go sells 48-ounce salads for around $6, as well as soups, smoothies, and breakfast items for around $4.
The brand is trying to rival more established drive-thru chains by making the ordering experience fast and convenient, cofounder Roushan Christofellis told Business Insider.
Since launching in the fall of 2016, Salad and Go now has six locations in Arizona, with plans to open eight more by 2018 and to expand elsewhere in the US by 2020.
LYFE Kitchen — A healthy chain backed by Oprah's former personal chef
Founded in 2011 in Palo Alto, California, LYFE has 20 locations in six states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Tennessee, and Texas).
While the chain doesn't explicitly brand itself as healthy, everything on the menu contains less than 600 calories and 1,000 mg of sodium, and the dishes are free of high-fructose corn syrup, butter, cream, trans fats, MSG, and preservatives. Most items cost less than $10.
As noted by First We Feast, LYFE is backed by Art Smith, Oprah’s former personal chef, who has also appeared on "Top Chef."
Veggie Grill — A vegan chain that claims its burger tastes better than a Big Mac
The vegan chain Veggie Grill serves burgers primarily made of pea protein, while its "chicken" sandwiches contain soy, pea, and wheat protein. Prices range from $3.50 to $11.50.
The chain has 28 locations, all of which are in California, Washington, and Oregon. In late 2016, the chain announced it will expand nationally after getting $22 million in funding from investors. By 2020, Veggie Grill plans to double in size.
"Today’s consumer is more mindful and aware that eating a diet made up primarily of veggies, fruits, grains and nuts is better for you," CEO Steve Heeley told Business Insider. (Unsurprisingly, Heeley is a vegan himself.)
Eatsa — An automated vegetarian chain
At the vegetarian chain Eatsa, customers place their orders on iPads and pick up their food from automated cubbies. Human workers prepare everything in the back.
Specializing in quinoa bowls that cost around $7, the chain's meals range from 450 to 700 calories.
Currently, Eatsa (which debuted in 2015) has four locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In November 2016, it added a DC location and opened its first New York City location in December.
Dig Inn — A farm-to-table eatery
With a menu that emphasizes locally sourced vegetables, Dig Inn offers items like maple and sriracha-glazed Brussels sprouts and poached wild salmon. Diners order pre-made main dishes and sides at a counter, which are placed in compostable boxes.
Since its launch in 2011, the farm-to-table chain has opened 14 locations in New York City and one in Boston. Dig Inn's CEO Adam Eskin told BI that the company plans to open more Massachusetts locations and add others in a third state by 2018.
Dig Inn forms partnerships with local farmers, which allows it to keep its prices relatively low, Eskin said. However, a plate from Dig Inn generally costs between $8-$11, which is more expensive than most food from McDonald's or Burger King. (However in New York City, where real estate prices are among the highest in the country, a McDonald's Big Mac meal costs around $8.)
The Kitchenette — A grab-and-go joint where most items cost $5
In August 2016, Kimbal Musk (yes, he's Elon's brother) launched a fast food restaurant that serves sandwiches, soups, and salads — the majority of which cost $4.95. Called the Kitchenette, it's located inside the visitor's center at Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500-acre urban park and conservancy in Memphis, Tennessee.
The grab-and-go spot is part of Musk's larger chain of restaurants, called the Kitchen, which strives to use produce and meat from local purveyors. Musk plans to launch more Kitchenette locations within Memphis and eventually nationwide, though there's no firm timeline yet.
Freshii — A plant-based chain that's been around for 10 years
Freshii, a Canadian fast food franchise founded in 2005, offers salads, wraps, and bowls, the majority of which are under 700 calories and cost $7. It boasts more than 300 locations worldwide and is one of America's most popular healthy fast food chains. In the past few years, new locations have opened inside airports, stadiums, and Target stores.
In 2015, after McDonald's announced its menu improvements, Freshii's CEO Matthew Corrin sent an open letter to McDonald's, in which he offered to partner with the fast-food giant and pushed the chain to serve healthier food.
Everytable — A chain that changes its prices based on the average income in the neighborhood where it's located
Everytable, which launched its first Los Angeles location in 2016, adjusts its prices depending on what its local customers can afford.
The South LA location (where households earn a median salary of $30,882), for example, offers salads and bowls for less than $4.50. In early 2017, Everytable opened a second location in downtown LA (where the median salary is $99,990), which offers the same items for around $8. Both stores' ingredients will be sourced from local purveyors, but the idea is that sales in wealthier neighborhoods can partially subsidize operations in lower-income areas.
Everytable's cofounders, Sam Polk and David Foster, told BI they plan to expand the chain to more LA neighborhoods and eventually to other cities around the US.
LocoL — A California eatery where everything costs $6 or less
LocoL, a fast food concept spawned by famed chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, offers a new take on traditional fast food.
The chain's dishes contain more calories than, say, a salad, but everything is made with high-quality, locally sourced, whole ingredients. In LocoL's cheeseburgers, for example, cooked grains and tofu make up 30% of the beef patties. Its chicken nuggets also contain fermented barley. Instead of soda, fruity aguas frescas are made in-house every day.
The chain, which launched in 2016, currently has three permanent locations and an array of food trucks in Los Angeles. In coming years, Choi and Patterson hope to have nine locations nationwide, including a coffee shop and a kitchen where their staff can prepare the trucks' food off-site, according to Eater.
Recently, restaurant transparency has become more common, especially at fast-casual chains. In May 2018, theFood and Drug Administration created a rule stating that restaurants that are part of a chain with 20 or more fixed locations must disclose calories for “standard menu items listed on menus and menu boards.” Some restaurants have taken the measure further by making allergen matrices and vegetarian/vegan info available to the public through their websites.
Moe’s Southwestern Grill does one of the best jobs of fast-casual Mexican chains in offering a section for special diets — vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nutrient-dense and keto. Its customizablevegetarian section mentions that the chain works with a nutritionist, and its cheeses and sour cream are animal rennet-free. Also, it cooks meat and veggies on separate grills. Moe’s chief marketing officer, Verchele Wiggins Roberts, told HuffPost the company introduced the special menus late last year.
“We noticed through web analytics that the Nutrition Calculator was one of the most visited pages on our website, so that tipped us off that there was an opportunity to better show our guests how to use our menu to better fit their lifestyle,” she said. Like Chipotle, it offers organic tofu and more than 20 other vegetarian-friendly items. “At Moe’s, it’s really important for us to be transparent about our ingredients because we want to educate our fans on the ease of dining at Moe’s, no matter what your lifestyle.”
Other Mexican chains are (mostly) doing a good job of catering to vegetarians.Chuy’s refried beans don’t contain pork fat (but some of their cheeses do contain rennet);Qdoba’s website could be more detailed with vegetarian info, but a representative told HuffPost that its cheeses contain no rennet, the tortilla soup is made with vegetable broth and the refried beans do not have pork fat.
Mistakes have led to better transparency.
This level of transparency hasn’t always existed, though. In 2011, Chipotle came under fire when a customer discovered the pinto beans he had been consuming for years had bacon in them; the secret ingredient wasn’t stated on in-store menus. The outrage encouraged Chipotle to transform the beans into a vegetarian dish beginning in 2013.
Thunderdome Restaurant Group, based in Cincinnati, manages more than 30 restaurant locations nationwide, which includes concepts Bakersfield (tacos), The Eagle (fried chicken), Currito (fast-casual burritos) andKrueger’s Tavern. In 2015, a few months after it opened in Cincinnati, Krueger’s offered a polenta cake side (braised fennel and olives, tomato sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano) but left out the fact the sauce contained bacon.
“I don’t know what happened. It might have been an oversight,” Joe Lanni, Thunderdome co-founder, told HuffPost. “We’re pretty sensitive to all that kind of stuff.” (The item remains on the menu and now mentions the bacon.)
Every day, Lanni fields ingredient-based questions from customers, and he and the staff consider customers’ special diets when developing recipes. “This is something we’re thinking about: How are we going to list it on the menu, and how are we going to make sure people know? ... People want to know what’s in [their food]. It’s just a reality of doing business today. People are asking for it, and you need to arm your staff with that information. Otherwise, you’re not doing a great job for your guests.”
Best and worst vegetables for you
Best and worst vegetables for you
Studies show that potatoes are "pure sugar" once they enter your system. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, potatoes are responsible for a surge in blood sugar and insulin --- it has the same effect as a can of Cola or candy.
Eat sparingly: Squash
Like potatoes, squash is a starch vegetable. 1 cup of butternut squash has 11 grams of carbohydrate and more than 40 calories, but is considered a healthier choice than potatoes. Nutritionists advise patients to be careful when eating squash as it can quickly put you "over your carb limit too quickly".
Eat Sparingly: Eggplant
Eggplant should be avoided by patients with digestive issues. Says the author of "Eat Dirt", "They contain alkaloids, which protects them from bugs and molds [when they’re growing in the field]. Unfortunately, these chemicals can trigger digestive issues.” Additionally, they possess high carbohydrate levels.
Some studies have linked eggplant to inflammation and arthritis. Furthermore, researchers advise patients who are prone to kidney stones to avoid the vegetable.
Eat sparingly: Beets
Beets are known for reducing dementia risk and increasing endurance for athletes. But beets have also been linked to kidney stones and gout because they are high in oxalate. This includes patients with gallbladder problems.
There's a reason ancient Chinese loved this bitter vegetable. It's so good for you! Bok Choy is low in calories but high in nutrients like calcium fiber and zinc. According to WebMD, one cup of bok choy (cooked) equates to more than 100% of the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A.
Eat more: Kale
It's still the latest superfoods Kale is low in calories and high in fiber, as well as numerous antioxidants. The vegetable is also known for being heart-healthy and lowering cholesterol. A 12-week study that tested the impact of kale juice on men with high cholesterol found favorable results and lowered their risk of "developing coronary disease".
Eat more: Asparagus
Sure, it's known to make your pee smell and your kids definitely put up a fight, but asparagus is well known for its amazing health benefits. It's packed with vitamins and minerals, low in calorie and fat. Patients looking to lose weight will find asparagus is one of the most beneficial vegetables.
It's also been scientifically proven that asparagus cures hangovers. "These results provide evidence of how the biological functions of asparagus can help alleviate alcohol hangover and protect liver cells," said a researcher at the Institute of Medical Science and Jeju National University in Korea.
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Not all restaurants fall under the legislation that requires transparency.
However, right now no legislation exists that would force restaurants to exhibit vegetarian info. “I think restaurant owners have the same amount of obligation to inform guests just as if my grandmother is cooking and telling us what’s in what dish she serves to family,” said Jason Wang, Xi’an’s founder and CEO. “I am not opposed to legislation that requires everyone to disclose info, but I just believe it should be fair and required for all.”
Only a few of Xi’an’s dishes are vegetarian. Its spicy and sour spinach dumplings — stuffed with ground spinach and vermicelli noodles — sounds like it’s vegetarian, but Wang said the sour and spicy dumpling broth is simmered in the same water that its lamb dumplings are cooked in.Wang said adding the meat ingredient to the menu description would make it “verbose,” and he hoped Xi’an’s diners would already be familiar with what’s in the soup.
He thinks one reason restaurants have become more limpid with ingredients is because of competition. “For example, if a burger has less calories and less fat and less sodium than a competitor’s and tastes just as good or better, it’s a competitive edge,” he said.
If non-chains want to comply with providing nutritional info, it generates an obstacle that small businesses might not be able to afford. “Think of the ethnic food establishments,” Wang said. “Will they have enough expertise to follow all of the regulations there are now? What we will see is a decline of these establishments, and that’s a shame.”
How does a diner avoid accidentally ordering an item made with an animal product?
Asking the wait staff questions about the menu seems like the ideal approach, but Wang said it’s more complicated than that. “In this labor market, to have very dedicated servers that know enough about the food is an unspoken challenge that plagues most operators,” he said.
“The simple answer is, have better-trained staff,” Wang added. “The realistic situation is that there’s just difficulties to that, due to qualified labor shortages. A lot of [mistakes] that make it to the news, I believe are due to lack of qualified labor in the economy. Automation helps, such as presenting ingredients’ information to people using technology.”
Lanni says the responsibility should also be shared with the diner. “Some of it has to fall on people who have decided to eat in a certain way,” he said. “If you know you’re a vegetarian, for ethical reasons or something like that, I feel like those people are usually pretty proactive in saying, ‘Hey, I’m a vegetarian. Does this have chicken stock in it?’”