National chain restaurants are not known for their health appeal, but you probably assume that when you order a burger, a salad or a slice of pizza, you’re getting just that – meat and cheese on a bun, lettuce with some dressing, and mozzarella cheese with toppings on pizza dough.
This would be a lofty assumption, however, if you eat at many U.S. chain restaurants. Even the seemingly healthy items at some restaurants have ingredient lists that read like science experiments.
You’ll be amazed at how many chemicals can be packed into a seemingly simple food like pizza cheese or a hamburger bun. And unless a vegetable is grown organically, you can bet that it contains toxic pesticides. And did I mention that virtually every menu item at fast-food restaurants contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy and Bt corn?
Even if you order a 100-percent beef burger, you’ll be getting meat that comes from cows raised in factory farms, where they’re fed grains (instead of the grass they’re designed to eat). Many of these cows suffer from severe digestive issues and other health problems as a result, and are pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals, like growth hormones, to make them gain weight faster.
In short, virtually every ingredient at these restaurants is the product of industrial farming, which values profits over human health, animal welfare and the environment. Eggs come from massive poultry farms where each hen spends years in a battery cage that measures smaller at the base than a standard sheet of paper (with not even enough space to outstretch its wings).
Dairy products, including milk and cheese, come from dairy cows also raised in intensive confinement and given synthetic growth hormones, which often lead to a painful udder infection known as mastitis (and more drugs to treat it) … but I digress.
The point to remember is that when you buy food from restaurants that support this broken and inhumane industrial agricultural system, you are, indirectly, supporting it. To break free of this system, and also protect your health, choose organic foods as much as possible, as well as those raised on small farms that respect the laws of nature. You’ll want to look for organic, grass-fed beef, free-range soy-free organic eggs, grass-fed hormone-free dairy and organic produce. If you try, you’ll probably be able to find sources for some of these foods closer to your home than you might think by working with a farmer, farmer’s market or food co-op directly.
Toward that end, below I’ve compiled a list of some of the worst chain restaurants for your health. Eat at these at your own peril, and be aware that even simple foods are not what they appear …
5 Unhealthiest Chain Restaurants
5. CiCi’s Pizza
A slice of pizza is a reasonable food for a treat, especially if you make your own at home. But at CiCi’s pizza most of the ‘flavor’ is coming from monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is added to at least 10 menu items (including their zesty pizza sauce, ranch dressing, and sausage and beef toppings). (MSG has all kinds of ill health effects… including being one of the top foods that cause anxiety and anger.) Even the cheese in CiCi’s Pizza is shocking, with added ingredients like partially hydrogenated soybean oil (i.e. synthetic trans fats), modified food starch, sodium aluminum phosphate and artificial color (in mozzarella cheese?).
There are worse foods you can eat than frozen yogurt, but I included TCBY (“The Country’s Best Yogurt”) on this list because they give off an air of healthiness that is just plain misleading. Yes, their yogurt contains live active probiotic cultures that are theoretically good for your gut. But if it’s gut health you’re after, you’ll want to avoid the many other not-so-good additives on TCBY’s menu, like corn syrup, cream “flavor” and artificial flavors, artificial colors and artificial sweeteners (in their sugar-free varieties). Perhaps worst of all, most also contain propylene glycol, a solvent used in the paint and plastics industries. By the way, this isn’t unique to TCBY … many of the ‘healthy’ frozen yogurt shops use some questionable ingredients.
3. Taco Bell
Again, leave it to a fast-food chain to turn an incredibly simple meal like a bean burrito into something with ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Preservatives like TBHQ, dough conditioners, and numerous ‘hidden’ forms of MSG are par for the course in Taco Bell burritos. Actually, they’re par for the course for virtually all menu items.
The beef at Taco Bell contains 12 percent “other” ingredients like modified corn starch (a cheap texturizing agent), caramel coloring IV (which is far worse than it sounds, as it’s been linked to cancer), and torula yeast (i.e. hidden MSG). The meat itself comes from factory farms, which are known for animal abuse and poor-quality food, plus are among the worst polluters in the country. If you’re looking for a healthier chain restaurant for Mexican food, try Chipotle.
Fried chicken is well known as a diet offender, but if you must eat it, make it at home, as KFC’s fried chicken makes homemade varieties seem like health food. In an ingredient list for KFC chicken, MSG is listed four times as part of the marinade, secret seasoning, pre-dusting and batter. Even their mashed potatoes are loaded with partially hydrogenated oil, artificial color and flavor, preservatives, corn syrup solids, and an anti-foaming agent.
And don’t let the grilled chicken fool you; it, too, is made with MSG as well as partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), and there are reports that it isn’t even grilled at all, just baked in an oven on a grill rack to simulate the lines. As The Health Wyze Report put it:
“We would not be surprised if KFC eventually just drew these grill lines upon their “grilled” chicken with a permanent marker, in order to cut costs. The petroleum-based ink would be less toxic than their current ingredients lists.”
McDonald’s recently earned the title of the lowest ranked for customer service satisfaction, but that’s only one reason to reconsider eating there. As the epitome of fast food, and everything that it entails, McDonald’s embodies the term fake food. Despite recent attempts to clean up their image, their ingredients remain a shameful conglomeration of corn syrup, artificial flavors, preservatives, propylene glycol, partially hydrogenated oil, dough conditioners and more.
And although the beef patty in their Quarter Pounder is reportedly made from 100% beef, you can be sure it’s beef from a factory farm (and all the hormones and antibiotics that come with it).
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Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFT
Co-Founder, Healthy Back Institute
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