The Health Hype
More than ever, Americans care about their food being healthy, to the extent that “'[h]ealthy’ is the no. 1 characteristic that consumers across all segments and nearly all demographics want to see more of on restaurant menus.”2
Over the past decade, one of the biggest stories in the restaurant industry has been the emergence of “fast casual” brands that do not offer full table service. They offer a slightly nicer atmosphere and promise seemingly higher-quality food than fast-food restaurants. They also charge slightly higher prices—an average meal costs between $8 and $15.3
As of 2012, growth of the largest fast-casual chains had outpaced that of the overall restaurant industry for several years.4 According to an August 2014 Wall Street Journal report on Technomic data, 19- to 21-year-old Americans have been increasingly choosing to eat at fast-casual restaurants rather than fast-food restaurants.5 Fast-casual restaurants often attempt to differentiate themselves from fast food by marketing themselves as healthy and fresh options.
Case Study: Au Bon Pain
Au Bon Pain was one of the first fast-casual brands. In 2013, it operated over 200 restaurants in the US, in locations including metropolitan areas such as NY, Boston, DC, and Chicago.6
In line with other fast-casual restaurants, Au Bon Pain’s brand promise states that “you should expect . . . flavorful, healthful, fresh and distinctively delicious food and beverages . . . Our high quality and ‘good for you’ ingredients result in a delicious culinary experience that keeps our guests coming back!”7
Here, we set out to compare Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu to that of traditional fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King, and to some nutritional standards for sodium, saturated fat and calorie content.8
We did so by weighing the nutritional content in Au Bon Pain’s food against:
- The American Heart Association recommended daily limits of sodium and saturated fat.9
- Classic Fast Food items: Levels of sodium, calories, and saturated fat in McDonald’s and Burger King’s food.
Read more about our methodology here. This includes our choice of nutritional standards and our use of the nutrition menus from Au Bon Pain, Burger King, and McDonald’s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high sodium consumption contributes to increased rates of blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.10 The American Heart Association (“AHA”) recommends that all Americans reduce the amount of sodium in their diets to less than 1500 mg of sodium per person per day.11
Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu lists 27 whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps in the following categories: Café, Hot, Signature, and Wraps.12 The average amount of sodium in Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps is 1,384 mg. That is 92% of the AHA daily-recommended sodium limit and also the equivalent amount of sodium to 8.1 bags of Lays Classic 1 oz potato chips.13
As shown above, a higher percentage of whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps listed on Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu are over 1,000 mg sodium than the percentage of whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps, and burgers at McDonald’s and Burger King that are over 1,000 mg.
As you can see in the above graph, 41% of Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps have over the American Heart Association’s daily-recommended sodium limit (1,500mg). 18% of McDonald’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps, and burgers have over 1,500mg of sodium, and 0% of Burger King’s do.
Au Bon Pain lists 47 soups on its June 23, 2015 nutrition menu. Each Au Bon Pain location offers only some of the soups at any given time. 66% of Au Bon Pain’s medium-sized soups (12 oz) contain over 1000 mg sodium. The average amount of sodium in Au Bon Pain’s medium-sized (12 oz) soups is 1036 mg. That is the equivalent amount of sodium to 5 and a half orders of medium-sized french fries from McDonald’s.
Au Bon Pain offers three soup sizes: small (8 oz) medium (12 oz), and large (16 oz). Although this report focuses on the medium-sized soups, even the small-sized soups contain an average of 691 mg sodium.
Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu also offers 11 “Specialty Salads.” The average amount of sodium in Au Bon Pain’s Specialty Salads (with dressing14), excluding the Side Garden Salad, is 1367 mg (91% of the AHA daily recommended sodium limit). That is equal to 7 orders of medium french fries at McDonald’s.
According to the CDC, more than one-third of US adults and approximately 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. High-calorie diets, combined with lack of physical activity, are leading causes of obesity.15
The graph above shows that 81% of Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps contain over 500 calories—a higher percentage than McDonald’s (45%) or Burger King’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps, and burgers (39%).16 At the same time, the average number of calories in an Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps is 596. That is more than McDonald’s (507) or Burger King (512)’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps and burgers.
Au Bon Pain lists 24 cookies and desserts on their nutrition menu under the category “Cookies & Desserts.” 19 of them contain more calories than a 52.7 g Snickers bar (250 calories). The average number of calories in Au Bon Pain’s Cookies and Desserts is 371.
Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu also lists 23 baked goods in the following categories: Croissants; Danish; Muffins; and Scones. Au Bon Pain’s baked goods average 430 calories.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has found that eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. Today, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The AHA recommends a daily intake of less than 16 g saturated fat per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.17
The average amount of saturated fat in Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps is 9.3 g. That is over half of the AHA daily recommended saturated-fat limit (16 g) and also more than the average amount of saturated fat in McDonald’s (8.3 g) or Burger King’s (8.8 g) whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps, and burgers.
The graph above shows the percentage of whole lunch/dinner sandwiches, wraps and burgers on the three fast-food chains’ nutrition menus that contain over 9 g of saturated fat. We chose this amount of fat (9 g) because it is over half of the AHA’s daily recommended saturated-fat limit.
An Au Bon Pain Harvest Cookie has more saturated fat than a McDonald’s Hot Fudge Sundae.
The average amount of saturated fat in Au Bon Pain’s cookies and desserts is 9.2 g. In Au Bon Pain’s croissants, danishes, muffins and scones, the average amount of saturated fat is 9.2 g. That is more than the amount of saturated fat in thirteen 11.3 g Oreo cookies.
As shown above, it is also more than the amount of saturated fat in a McDonald’s Hot Fudge Sundae.
How does a full meal compare?
There is an obesity epidemic in America. Following a healthy diet can help prevent obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.18 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “[a] healthy diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.” Among other things, the NIH suggests that to lower your risk of Coronary Heart Disease and heart attack, you should follow a diet that is both low in saturated and trans fats, and low in salt and sugar: “A low-salt diet can help you manage your blood pressure. A low-sugar diet can help you prevent weight gain and control diabetes and prediabetes.”19
We asked, does healthy fast food live up to the hype? An analysis of Au Bon Pain’s nutrition menu reveals that Au Bon Pain’s whole lunch/dinner sandwiches and wraps categories on their June 23, 2015 nutrition menu contain, on average, more sodium, saturated fat, and calories than the average for those categories and burgers on either the McDonald’s or Burger King nutrition menu.
UNITE HERE represents 90,000 food-service workers employed in corporate cafeterias, airports, universities, school districts, sports stadiums, event centers, amusement parks, cultural institutions, and national parks. In addition, UNITE HERE represents tens of thousands of restaurant workers inside hotels and casinos.
Together we are working to transform the traditionally low-wage food-service industry into an industry that provides affordable family health care, retirement security, and respect on the job. Food workers are also working to change our food system by advocating for policies and practices that promote real, sustainable, and fair food.
 Every time ‘average’ is used in this report, it refers to the ‘mean’ unless otherwise indicated.
 Nation’s Restaurants News, April 27, 2015, “Redefining ‘healthful’”, p 60; and USA Today, October 31, 2013, “Americans are making healthier food choices”, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/31/fruit-increase-juice-decreases/3308427/
 Forbes, June 23, 2014, “How The Fast Casual Segment is Gaining Market Share in the Restaurant Industry,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2014/06/23/how-the-fast-casual-segment-is-gaining-market-share-in-the-restaurant-industry/
 Nation’s Restaurant News, May 16, 2012, “Technomic: Fast-Casual brands ahead of industry growth,” http://nrn.com/latest-headlines/technomic-fast-casual-brands-ahead-industry-growth.
 The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2014, “McDonald’s Faces ‘Millenial’ Challenge’, http://www.wsj.com/articles/mcdonalds-faces-millennial-challenge-1408928743
 Nation’s Restaurant News, 2014 Second 100: U.S. Units, http://nrn.com/us-second-100/2014-second-100-us-units and aubonpain.com/about-us/our-history
 We use the American Heart Association’s recommended daily limits for saturated fat and sodium. These are based on a 2,000-calorie/day diet. See the methodology page for more information.
 A comparison of the “% Daily Value” of saturated fat and sodium Au Bon Pain assigns to its menu items on the individual nutrition pages on its website (e.g. http://aubonpain.com/menu/sweet-cheese-croisbun) suggests that the company relies on higher recommended daily limits for saturated fat and sodium than the American Heart Association.
 “Sodium: the facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, original publication: 06/2010, updated: 02/2013, http://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/Sodium_Fact_Sheet.pdf
 “Reducing Sodium in a Salty World”, American Heart Association, Last Reviewed 10/2013, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Reducing-Sodium-in-a-Salty-World_UCM_457519_Article.jsp. Also see the methodology section.
 We use the Au Bon Pain nutrition menu dated June 23, 2015, last accessed on June 25, 2015 at http://aubonpain.com/nutrition link “Nutrition Menu PDF.” See the methodology section for more information.
 For nutritional information about Lays potato chips see the methodology page.
 See methodology page for more information about the salad and dressing combinations.
 “Adult Obesity Facts, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Page last updated: June 16, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html ; and “Childhood Obesity Facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, page last updated: June 19, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html; and “Adult Obesity Causes & Consequences”, page last updated: June 16, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/causes.html see also: “Obesity: Causes”, Mayo Clinic, June 10, 2015, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obesity/basics/causes/con-20014834
 See the methodology page for the equivalent categories on McDonald’s and Burger King menus
 “Know your Fats,” American Heart Association, updated: April 29, 2015, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Know-Your-Fats_UCM_305628_Article.jsp; and “Saturated Fats,” American Heart Association, Updated: January 12, 2015, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp; and “Heart Disease Facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 19, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
 “Understanding the American Obesity Epidemic,” American Heart Association, March 14, 2014, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/WeightManagement/Obesity/Understanding-the-American-Obesity-Epidemic_UCM_461650_Article.jsp; and “The Obesity Epidemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 22, 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/cdctv/diseaseandconditions/lifestyle/obesity-epidemic.html
 “How To Prevent and Control Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factors,” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, June 9, 2015, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hd/prevent; see also “The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations,” American Heart Association, Updated: June 10, 2015, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp