Fast food heeds the call for better ingredients

American restaurant goers, grocery shoppers and home chefs have made it clear that their preferences have shifted to healthy, wholesome and home-grown ingredients. Fast food and TV dinners have begun to fall out of fashion. Some in the latter group have made it a priority to realign their offerings with these moving tastes. Similarly, the former is considering a new approach, as well.

Fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King have fallen on hard times, relatively speaking. While these and other major restaurant chains are in no immediate danger of suddenly losing their consumer base, persistently declining U.S. sales have led these giants to rethink their strategies.

Chains work to win back Americans' trust
For many fast food restaurants, changing ingredients is only half the battle. While it is necessary to produce a healthier product, these eateries must also reinvent their image. As it stands, there is little to dispel the idea that fast food is greasy, fatty, salty and high in unnatural additives. Even ingredients that have been approved by the FDA and do not pose a significant health risk are still becoming taboo by way of public perception, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Subway recently ran ads indicating that the chain removed an ingredient called azodicarbonamide from its bread. The chemical is a federally-approved, commonly-used dough conditioner, but it is also used in yoga mats. Not surprisingly, consumers were turned off by the association, so Subway reacted accordingly.

"Sometimes, food additives can be crutches or insurance policies. If a food is frozen, germs aren't going to grow. But preservatives might be added just in case, or they may be used just because their supplier has been using it for so long," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Such changes, he added, were "not a big deal" in terms of overall health.

Other experts, like public health lawyer Michele Simon, believe that adding and removing ingredients addresses the symptoms, but not the cause.

"These companies have a fundamental problem in who they are," she told the newspaper.

Building a better burger
The cheeseburger is the flag-bearer of American fast food, so it stands to reason that it bears the brunt of criticism levied at companies like McDonald's and Carl's Jr. As a result of claims of modified – even horse-based meat – McDonald's has launched a transparency campaign that many other restaurants have adopted as well, according to Take Part.

Carl's Jr. announced its "all-natural" burger, which the chain claims is the first of its kind in fast food. The burger features meat that is based on grass-fed cattle raised without hormones, steroids or antibiotics. It's part of a push from these establishments to build a narrative around their food – the same way a gourmet chef describes ingredients from local farms.

It's a standard that small restaurants and local farms-to-food suppliers have known for a long time – but recently the public caught up with the trend. What separates small diners and the like from the massive chains is their focus on quality ingredients, fresh preparation and transparency. For larger chains to achieve this same level of trust between cooks and their customers will require a massive overhaul. If and when that happens, McDonald's could become a viable alternative to the local butcher. Until then, consumers will likely prefer to check the farmer's market.

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