Taste Test: Better Fast Food

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Now that we're past Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, vacations lie ahead -- and with them ample opportunity for nutritional mischief on the road.

But this year, you may want to think seriously about stopping at a fast-food establishment to grab a healthful meal.

That's right. Facing pressure from advocacy groups, public officials, lawsuits and (maybe) increasing consumer preference, many fast food chains have begun taking the healthier parts of their menus more seriously. That means more nutritious foods, from fruit and low-fat yogurt parfaits to tempting salads with low-fat dressings and grilled shrimp.

The Lean Plate Club recently recruited members of the Health section staff to taste some of this healthier fare. While none of the meals rated four stars, most testers were surprised at how good the food tasted.

"I'd buy this and eat it," was the consensus for all the items tasted -- even the veggie burger from Burger King (although we do admit that the toppings, especially the ample dollop of mayonnaise, helped account for its appeal).

So as you hit the road this summer -- whether you travel turnpikes, back roads, through airports or train stations -- here's a guide to help you make smart travel food choices when you're tired, hungry, hectored by cranky kids and surrounded only by Golden Arches or other fast-food icons.

But first, two tips:

· Expect high sodium. Even some of the entree salads packed 900 milligrams of sodium and more before adding dressing or croutons. The recommended level is 2,300 milligrams daily for those aged 45 or younger; 1,500 for those older, for African Americans and for people with high blood pressure. Snack on fruit high in potassium (bananas, oranges and raisins) to help balance the sodium.

· Resist the urge to super-size, since doing so can easily add up to a day's worth of calories and more than a day's worth of fat.

Burger King The "have it your way" chain was the first to introduce Morningstar Farms veggie burgers -- a food you can buy in grocery stores -- to its menu. Burger King's patty (with the mayo and other toppings) has 420 calories, including 16 grams of fat, but only three of those grams are saturated and there's no unhealthful trans fat. Our testers liked it. High in protein, the veggie burger also has seven grams of fiber and 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

If you've got a hankering for meat, skip the trendy Angus Steak burger (570 calories) and have the single burger. At 310 calories, 13 grams of fat (five of them saturated), minimal trans fat and half the sodium of the veggie burger, it's a decent alternative.

But for great taste, nearly a day's worth of veggies and fewer calories than most of the burgers, choose the salads. They clock in at around 200 calories, without dressing (which adds 70 to 130 calories per packet) and the garlic parmesan toast (70 calories). Both the Fire-Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad and the Fire-Grilled Chicken Garden Salad earned high marks from our testers. There are also shrimp versions of both, which contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

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