Modesty has never been Chick-fil-A's strong suit. This is, after all, the chain that perpetually brags about inventing the chicken sandwich. Its outspoken CEO also isn't shy about letting folks know how he feels about traditional marriage or why his restaurants aren't open for business on Sundays.
However, the quick-service chain is taking a surprisingly secretive approach to its efforts to improve its nutrition profile. In what Chick-fil-A is calling "stealth health," it's quietly making its food better for consumers without telling them.
"If customers ask, we'll tell them," Chick-fil-A senior nutrition consultant Jodie Worrell tells Nation's Restaurant News. "But it's almost like you're forcing them to notice a change if you tell them."
The chain has been working on eliminating artificial food dyes, high-fructose corn syrup, and some preservatives. It just doesn't want to shout it from the rooftops until it knows that customers can't taste the difference.
"We didn't necessarily want the customer to know we've tweaked their favorite product," Worrell explains.
Taking Back Sunday
Most chains are quick to toot their own horns when they eliminate trans fats or add healthier kids-meal options to the menu. Burger King (BKW) has been actively marketing its new crinkle-cut Satisfries as having 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than its larger burger rival's french fries.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Chick-fil-A may eventually get to crowing about its changes, but for now, it's quietly communicating with its harshest critics.
FoodBabe.com blogger Vani Hari didn't pull any punches in calling out Chick-fil-A two years ago, when she suggested it should consider changing its name to Chemical-Fil-A. The chain reached out to her, inviting her out to see the progress that the chain is doing to improve the nutritional quality of its menu. She did, naturally blogging about it earlier this month.
Let's go over some of the changes that Chick-fil-A has confirmed to Hari:
Chick-fil-A's signature chicken soup will roll out later this month with less salt and the elimination of an artificial yellow dye.
High-fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes are being eliminated in dipping sauces and salad dressings by early 2014.
Chick-fil-A is testing a peanut frying oil that doesn't contain TBHQ -- an ingredient derived from butane that Hari has been critical about in the past.
The chain is also expanding a test with a reformulated sandwich bun that is free of preservatives.
Chick-fil-A has a lot going on, but it still doesn't want to boast.
The Cow Is a Reluctant Mascot
Chick-fil-A isn't afraid of controversy. CEO Dan Cathy -- the son of the chain's founder -- made waves last year for his outspoken opinions against same-sex marriage. Naturally, it proved polarizing, with some activist groups calling for boycotts of the 1,700-unit chain.
The menu critiques predate the controversy. This isn't a political campaign to get Chick-fil-A to improve its menu. It also needs to be said that Hari still isn't satisfied.
Her top request -- a call for Chick-fil-A to back sustainable chicken breeders that don't use antibiotics or GMO feed and provide better habitats -- remains unmet. She's also still waiting for Chick-fil-A to address the use of MSG in its sandwiches.
Then again, it's not as if most restaurant chains have followed the lead of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and its "food with integrity" philosophy. The dining industry is still trying to find the balance between humanely raised livestock and what customers are willing to pay. And, in the case of a more health conscious Chick-fil-A the balance between better nutrition and the recipes that make its fans want to eat more chicken.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Burger King Worldwide and Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.