TIME Diet/Nutrition

How Healthy Are ‘Secret Menus’ at Restaurants?

fast food burgers
Getty Images

The answer is more complicated than we expected

For years, Jamba Juice has marketed healthy and nutritious smoothies blended with 100% fruit juice. But the website Hack the Menu points out a “secret menu” with items like “Red Gummy Bear” and “Pink Starburst“—both allegedly blended to taste like their candy namesakes. The rumored off-menu offerings sound a little sweeter, but potentially less healthy.

Jamba Juice is not alone in its reputation for having a secret menu: according to Hack the Menu, restaurant chains like Starbucks, In-N-Out Burger and Chipotle also oblige off-menu requests for those in the know. TIME looked into why restaurants might bother with a whole other menu, and whether secret menu options are always less healthy than their advertised counterparts. The answer is more complicated than we expected.

MORE: Try Ordering These Delicious-Sounding Drinks From Starbucks’ Secret Menu

Surprisingly, most nutritionists we spoke to had never heard of the concept of secret menus. Their feelings were mixed, but most said they were concerned about the lack of readily accessible nutritional information for off-menu items.

“So many consumers are looking for transparency,” said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet. “If you want a secret menu, at least make it obvious what the calories are and [put] the nutrition analysis where it’s available for people to see.”

MORE: There’s a $10 Secret Menu Item At Arby’s Called the Meat Mountain

Excluding unhealthy items from a menu helps avoid having to disclose their lack of nutritional value. This is especially true in places like New York, where the law requires restaurant chains to display certain nutritional information in menus. That regulation doesn’t apply to items that aren’t on the menu, or those listed on a menu for less than 30 days, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wrote in an e-mail to TIME. Secret menu items “undermine the intention of the rule,” though they’re technically legal, it said.

A lack of transparency becomes a potential problem for people with allergies, who may not be aware of what ingredients are included in the item they’re ordering, nutritionists said.

“To me, the most important thing is that the staff would be educated on what the ingredients are,” said Gans.

Spokespeople for most of the chains contacted by TIME denied the existence of a “secret menu,” but acknowledged that customers can customize their orders.

“Our people are trained to make what customers want with the ingredients we have,” said Chipotle communications director and spokesperson Chris Arnold in a statement. Nachos and a quesarito, a mammoth burrito blanked inside a quesadilla, are among the items that customers order off-menu at Chipotle, according to Hack the Menu.

MORE: Taco Bell Is Adding A Quesarito To Its Menu

But despite their shroud of secrecy, secret menus don’t appear to be all bad news, nutritionists said. Some have options that appear healthy, while others allow customers to modify a menu offering in a way that makes it healthier, said Jessica Levinson, founder of nutrition consulting business Nutritioulicious. She cited an option to swap out mayo for mustard at Burger King as one such option.

Registered dietitian Judy Caplan praised efforts to offer healthy options, but said she wasn’t surprised that some fast food restaurants would offer less healthy options off the menu. While fast food has become more nutritious in recent years, and chains have recently cut calories in new menu items by 12%, there are still many customers who want unhealthy food, she argued.

“When you’re in business,” she said, “the customer is always right.”

MONEY Fast Food

Skeptical of What’s In That Big Mac? Tweet McDonald’s About It

You might be surprised to find that the videos floating around the web questioning what's in McDonald's hamburgers are actually produced by McDonald's. It's all part of a new social media campaign by the fast-food giant to address misconceptions about its ingredients.

TIME Food & Drink

Taco Bell’s New Menu Will Make Sriracha Fans Very Happy

Hot Sauce Controversy
Nick Ut—AP

The chain is testing some spicy new menu items

Hopefully you’re not on an all-carb diet, because you’re definitely going to want to hit up Taco Bell soon. The chain is now testing a new menu that incorporates a whole lot of Sriracha, the Washington Post reports.

Sadly, though, these spicy new items are only being tested in the Kansas City area, now through mid-November. Here’s what the menu includes:

  • Sriracha Beef Griller
  • Sriracha Taco and Taco Supreme
  • Sriracha Quesarito (this is a Quesarito, by the way)
  • Sriracha Nachos
  • Sriracha Quesarito Box
  • Sriracha Grande Scrambler

Diehard fans of the beloved rooster sauce might notice, however, that the condiment Taco Bell is using is more of a “Sriracha creme” sauce with a bit less heat, as one Redditor noted. In the meantime, if you’re not in the Kansas City area, you can just continue pouring Sriracha all over everything and get the same effect.

TIME restaurants

McDonald’s Addresses ‘Pink Slime,’ Other Rumors in New Ad

Company hires MythBusters co-host Grant Imahara to answer people's most disgusting questions

“Are there lips and eyeballs in there?”

“At what point in the process do we inject the pink slime?”

These aren’t the questions you’d expect from a new McDonald’s promotional video, which was released Monday and reveals the inner workings of its “beef plant” in Cargill, Calif. But addressing fast food skeptics’ grossest questions head-on is the crux of the company’s new PR campaign.

As part of this effort, McDonald’s has hired professional skeptic and MythBusters co-host Grant Imahara to answer people’s most disgusting questions about the company’s food.

The chain also held a relatively snarky Q&A on Twitter, sometimes linking to food FAQs on its website and other times calling questions it received outright “gross and totally false.”

National television spots in the “Our Food. Your Questions” campaign began airing Monday.

A new study by the WSJ and Technomic Inc. consumers in their 20s and 30s have defected to competitors (like Chipotle), and people aged 19 to 21 who visited McDonald’s every month has decreased 12.9% since 2011. So the real question is, by embracing millennial-friendly language, celebrities and social platforms, will McDonald’s win back its young base?

TIME Diet/Nutrition

What McDonald’s New ‘Transparency’ Campaign Is Hiding

mcdonalds-sign
Getty Images

"Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones"

McDonald’s announced today that it’s making a greater effort at transparency and engagement with its new campaign, “Our Food, Your Questions.” McDonald’s has a serious image problem and a sagging bottom line, which might explain its sudden willingness to fling the barn door open as a way to shed its reputation for serving mass-produced, unhealthy food. Showing the public how the sausage is made may win favor with some consumers, but a better strategy for the fast food giant would be to make truly meaningful commitments to sustainability.

McDonald’s realizes people have big questions about the quality and origins of their food. So the company that serves 28 million people daily in the U.S. is now promising straightforward answers. McDonald’s is releasing behind-the scenes web vignettes and infographics, which will apparently illustrate the production process behind its products like Chicken McNuggets and the McRib, and how they go from “farm to restaurant.” It also says it will listen to real customers’ questions online and answer honestly in real time.

McDonald’s has also enlisted professional skeptic and former “MythBusters” co-host Grant Imahara, who is featured in a series of videos addressing consumers’ persistent doubts and questions. “We know some people–both McDonald’s fans and skeptics–continue to have questions about our food from the standpoint of the ingredients or how food is prepared at the restaurant. This is our move to ensure we engage people in a two-way dialogue about our food and answer the questions and address their comments,” Kevin Newell, EVP-chief brand and strategy officer for McDonald’s USA, told BurgerBusiness.com.

Until now, what happened behind the curtain at McDonald’s has been invisible to most of us. But because the company’s supply chain is so long, and it sources raw ingredients from such a wide array of locations and facilities, it would be impossible for any one tour, vignette, or infographic to show more than a sliver of what goes on at the farm, factory, and processing levels.

And while it’s angling for the farm-to-table crowd, as the world’s largest buyer of beef and pork with hamburgers for as low as one dollar, McDonald’s current practices will probably still be considered factory-farm-to-table.

“McDonald’s is making important progress away from gestation crates in its pork supply chain, though nearly all of its eggs in the U.S. still come from birds locked inside battery cages so small they can’t spread their wings,” Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, told me. “This is in contrast to McDonald’s policies in Europe and U.K., where its eggs are all cage-free.”

Online, McDonald’s answers some questions about its products. So far, I didn’t see any questions (or answers) about antibiotic use or whether its eggs are cage-free, even in its section on “sourcing and sustainability.” Here’s what they do answer. On beef hormones: “Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth.” On feeding animals GMO feed: “Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops.”

And while it says it no longer uses so-called “pink slime” in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also uses azodicarbonamide, AKA “the yoga mat ingredient,” in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: “Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk.” As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? “Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food.”

Most people simply don’t think of McDonald’s as a healthy place to eat, despite its efforts to offer more menu choices. Its insidious marketing of fast foods to kids hasn’t won it any points either. With U.S. sales down, recent food safety scandals in China, and labor issues here, its rivals are eating McDonald’s for lunch and breakfast, too.

The truth is, McDonald’s is facing a marketplace where people increasingly want good food served fast, as opposed to fast food. Millennials are now driving the food bus and they’re heading straight to Chipotle and other establishments that are offering healthier options, including foods without genetically engineered or artificial ingredients and meat from animals raised without antibiotics.

An estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being fed to animals on factory farms for purposes other than treating diseases. McDonald’s producers uses antibiotics to “treat, prevent, and control disease” in its food-producing animals.

Using antibiotics to prevent disease and promote faster growth (the company has phased out the latter since 2003, though some say using them to prevent disease has the same effect)—rather than merely to treat infections—allows producers to raise many animals together in dirty, crowded spaces. And it has contributed to antibiotic resistant bacteria, which the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control now widely regard as an international epidemic.

From food safety scandals to the serious public health impacts of eating fast food, consumers increasingly want truth, trust, and transparency in their food. But transparency demands responsibility and is toothless on its own. Today’s eaters want to see where their food comes from so they can make informed choices and also advocate for change.

If McDonald’s really wants to connect with consumers, it should take a hard look at the practices behind the ingredients it uses and begin to change them incrementally. It could take a real stand for sustainability—including changing to suppliers and producers who raise meat without antibiotics. As the biggest fast food company in the nation, McDonald’s choices are no small potatoes. A change like that could mean a much happier meal.

See more at: How McDonald’s Could Serve Up a Happier Meal

TIME celebrity

Comedian Billy Eichner Is Accusing Burger King’s Latest Ad of Ripping Off His Act

Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have weighed in

One of Burger King’s latest ads (above) features a slightly unhinged, brown-haired man yelling at innocent passersby on the street. But according to comedian Billy Eichner, host of Billy on the Street on Fuse, there’s only room for one slightly unhinged, yelling street interviewer.

Eichner, who has even gotten David Letterman to exchange a few screams, took to Twitter Sunday night to accuse Burger King of ripping off his signature schtick — in an overall unfunny rip off:

Eichner fans — including celebrities — have tweeted out their displeasure:

Burger King and Horizon Media, the ad agency credited with making the spot, did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

This isn’t the first time a big company has been accused of ripping off an artist’s act. In September, the band OKGo alleged that Apple copied the visual effects used in its VMA-winning music video The Writing’s on the Wall in a recent ad.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Fast-Food Chains Are Cutting Calories, But Does Anyone Care?

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Nico Kai—Getty Images

What's really behind the drops in chain restaurants' calories

Large chain restaurants have lowered their calories, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health used a database of menu items from the 100 largest United States restaurant chains. The numbers showed that from 2012 to 2013, there was a 12% decline, about 56 fewer calories, in newly introduced menu items overall. The calorie cuts were largely in main-course items.

But resist the urge to rush to the nearest drive-thru. The researchers also report that in restaurants with a single food responsible for their identity—a burger, say—the calorie drops were more likely to be in new items added to the menu unrelated to their core business. In other words: More salads, not lower calorie burgers. Restaurants in the U.S. with 20 or more locations are supposed to be listing calorie counts on their menus, which might be why some are adding more healthy items. That’s a good thing, of course, but in the real world, people tend to want the fried stuff when they dine at a fast-food joint.

Take the sad fate of Burger King’s Satisfries, for instance. The restaurant tried to introduce a lower-calorie, lower-fat fry, but customers didn’t want it. In August 2014, Burger King announced that due to months of poor sales, the fries were being pulled from two-thirds of North American locations.

“You can’t prohibit people from eating fast food, but offering consumers lower calorie options at chain restaurants may help reduce caloric intake without asking the individual to change their behavior—a very difficult thing to do,” study author Sara N. Bleich, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School said in a statement.

Still, historically speaking, merely adding healthier options to a menu renowned for its junk food hasn’t incited huge changes, since people will opt for foods they’ve grown to crave. Making it easier for people to get healthy food and combating marketing for the unhealthy stuff might move us closer to a healthier restaurant ecosystem.

MONEY Fast Food

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Fast Food Drive-Thru

Smile on drive-thru sign
Jerome Wilson—Alamy

Among other curiosities, we've found out where and when drive-thru service is quickest, why Starbucks will have more and more drive-thrus, and why Chipotle may never have a single one.

Here are some fascinating factoids that’ll make for great conversation the next time you’re waiting on line at the drive-thru—and that perhaps will even influence what you order.

The drive-thru is getting slower. OK, so maybe this is one part of the drive-thru experience that doesn’t come as a total surprise. But the latest version of an annual study from QSR Magazine (QSR = quick serve restaurant) confirms that wait times at the drive-thru are on the rise. Last year’s study indicated that the average drive-thru wait time hit 181 seconds, up from 173 seconds the year before. According to the new study—an expanded version that incorporated 23 quick-serve restaurant brands, up from just seven in 2013—the average wait time reached a record high of 203 seconds. (Perhaps that’s why people were so excited about McDonald’s one-minute drive-thru guarantee.)

Midafternoon is when drive-thrus are fastest and friendliest. The wait at the drive-thru for breakfast tends to be mercifully brief, with the average clocking in at 175 seconds. This is understandable considering that breakfast orders tend to be small and simple, typically one person ordering coffee and a breakfast sandwich on the way to work. Not only do menus expand during lunch and dinner hours, but orders are more likely being placed for two or more people, and the customizable options multiply (for instance, the choice of sauce with a customer’s nuggets or dressing with a salad). As a result, orders are more complicated and time-consuming to get ready, explaining why drive-thru lunch orders average 214 seconds, while dinner takes up the most time of all, 226 seconds. Overall, the optimal time of day to hit the drive-thru is the mid-afternoon “snack” period, when wait times average 173 seconds—and when, per the QSR survey, 33% of customers rate the service as “very friendly,” the highest percentage of any order time.

The first drive-thru opened in 1947 (and it wasn’t a McDonald’s). By the World War II era, carhop service for drive-up restaurants serving burgers and other fast-ish food was common. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the first drive-thru opened, reportedly at Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. Red’s closed in 1984, so the award for the longest-running burger drive-thru goes to the original In-N Out Burger. It opened in 1948 in the Los Angeles area, and yes, it was based on the unique concept of a drive-thru hamburger stand using a (then) state-of-the-art two-way speaker box.

The first drive-thru-focused chain opened in 1951 (and it wasn’t McDonald’s). It was Jack in the Box, another California-born concept created to take advantage of the burgeoning car culture. The original Jack in the Box was in San Diego and was drive-thru-only, offering motorists hamburgers to go for 18¢ apiece. While most Jack in the Boxes now also have indoor dining areas, roughly 85% of the orders at its 2,250 locations are either drive-thru or to-go. Jack in the Box is also credited with creating a rather self-serving fake marketing holiday, National Drive-Thru Day, which is celebrated every July 24.

McDonald’s didn’t have a drive-thru until 1975. The fast food brand most closely associated with the drive-thru—and fast food in general, for that matter—had no drive-thru until 1975, when the company’s first was launched in Sierra Vista, Ariz. By that time, McDonald’s already had 3,000 restaurants worldwide and was opening locations in Nicaragua, the Bahamas, and Hong Kong.

Drive-thru design heavily influences what we order. Those appetizing photos of combo meals are prominently featured on drive-thru menu boards for a reason: They are there to upsell customers and make the ordering process simpler—and quicker—according to restaurant experts. Photos distill the components of an order faster than even the briefest of descriptions, and pictures of combo orders are generally placed dead center on well-lit drive-thru menus because that’s usually where the customer’s eye goes first. Restaurants even find some benefit in making drive-thru customers wait a bit in line, with the so-called “car stack” of three or four vehicles allowing each party ample time to take in what’s on the menu and be better prepared for placing orders quickly. The next drive-thru innovation could very well be touchscreen ordering, which allows customers to personalize orders without occupying the time of a restaurant employee; as a bonus to eateries, consumers tend to place higher-priced orders when using touchscreens.

Wendy’s has quickest service, Chick-fil-A is most accurate. While the data changes a bit from year to year, the 2012 drive-thru study indicated that the average wait time for a Wendy’s order was just 130 seconds, the quickest in the field and more than one minute faster than Burger King. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A was tops in terms of accuracy, getting 92% of orders correct. Overall order accuracy among all drive-thrus in the 2014 study was measured at 87%; Burger King accuracy was only 82%.

Drive-thrus are increasingly important to Starbucks. Starbucks is known mostly as a spot for enjoying the unrushed (read: slow) café experience, but nowadays 40% of Starbucks locations have drive-thrus for speedy on-the-go “refueling” transactions. What’s more, Starbucks CFO Troy Alstead has said that going forward, 60% of new Starbucks opened will have drive-thrus. Having largely exhausted the potential to expand further into downtown locations where drive-thrus would be problematic or impossible, Starbucks is placing an emphasis on “off-highway kinds of locations” and “some of the remote areas around the country,” Alstead said, to reach out to new customers. It certainly doesn’t hurt that drive-thrus allow Starbucks coffee shops to speed up service, thereby serving more people and hiking per-store profits. “We have fantastic economics through our drive-thrus,” said Alstead. “We’re providing a great experience to our customers who are on the go, they’re moving fast, they want that ability to stay in their car and experience Starbucks at the same time.”

Panera studied drive-thrus for 10 years before opening one. The fast-casual restaurant category, which has become a phenomenal success due to its mix of speedy service, customizable orders, and fresher and higher-quality fare, has been fairly reluctant to pull up to the drive-thru, so to speak. Why? One reason is the fear that the drive-thru cheapens the experience figuratively and literally, the latter because orders taken away in the car are prone to getting soggy or are otherwise less appealing than food fresh eaten on the spot. Panera Bread, one of the earliest players in the fast-casual space, reportedly studied drive-thru options for a decade before finally introducing one in 2005. That was only after the company settled on a design that would hide drive-thru operations from the regular counter-serve customers (they didn’t want to disturb or distract anyone), and after developing special packaging that ensure “food integrity” in drive-thru orders.

Chipotle is a drive-thru holdout, and may never give in. Experts in the field have said that a drive-thru would destroy the Chipotle experience, in which customers look at employees face-to-face, eyeball all the ingredients in front of them, and customize exactly what they want in their burrito or bowl. The question of if or when it will add a drive-thru comes up again and again, but thus far Chipotle hasn’t gone there. And based on how successful Chipotle has been without offering drive-thru service, it hardly seems to need it.

TIME Fast Food

Drive-Thru Lanes Wait Times Hit Record High

Wait times experienced a record jump in the past year

The drive-thru lane at fast-food restaurants isn’t so quick these days.

The amount of time drivers spend waiting in line is dramatically increasing, according to the 2014 Drive-Thru Performance Study from trade publication QSR Magazine.

In 2013, drivers spent 180.83 seconds on average in line, USA Today reports, but now that average has jumped to 219.97 seconds — a roughly 40-second jump. Though the study increased its sample size in the past year, studying 2,188 trips at 17 fast-food companies instead of last year’s seven chains, those extra 40 seconds make for the longest wait time in the 17 years of its study.

The change is significant for the $200 billion-plus fast food industry, which finds big chains getting more than 60 percent of their business from the drive-thru lane. It’s also significant considering the study found that fewer cars are hitting up the drive-thru line in the first place, signifying a growing preference for accuracy, service and healthier items that are slower to prepare.

[USA Today]

MONEY

Wake Up! Monday Is National Coffee Day and There’s Free Coffee to Be Had

A sea of to-go coffee cups
Paul Kooiman—Gallery Stock

On Monday, September 29, a.k.a. National Coffee Day, plenty of regional and national restaurant chains will pour you a coffee for free—or at most, $1.

Fake marketing holiday or not, Monday, Sept. 29 is being celebrated as National Coffee Day, and that means free (or nearly so) coffee can be had at several donut, fast food, and coffee specialists around the country. Here’s where to score an extra jolt of caffeine on the cheap:

Dunkin’ Donuts: All customers get a free medium cup of Dark Roast CoffeeDD’s new flavor, a surprising one from the chain—on September 29, and from September 30 to October 5, the same coffee (medium size Dark Roast) is being sold at the special price of 99¢.

Kangaroo Express: A 12 oz. cup of the convenience store chain’s Bean Street Coffee costs just 1¢ from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday.

Krispy Kreme: Help yourself to a free cup of 12 oz. coffee, or get $1 off a mocha, latte, or ice coffee.

Lamar’s Donuts: The Colorado-based donut chain is giving away free 12 oz. coffees on National Donut Day.

McDonald’s: Monday is actually the culmination of a two-week coffee giveaway at McDonald’s, which has provided one complimentary small coffee during morning hours since September 16.

Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.: Customers get a free coffee (hot or ice) with the purchase of any menu item.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea: Participating stores are giving free samples of coffee and espresso, and all beverages are available on a buy-one-get-one-free basis; also, bags of coffee (ground or whole bean) are discounted by $2 apiece at Peet’s on Monday.

Tim Horton’s: The Canadian quick-serve chain gave out free donuts on National Donut Day, but sadly, customers have to cough up actual money for coffee on National Coffee Day. Any size coffee costs $1, and the promotion stretches from September 22 to 29.

Wawa: Fill out a form linked to from the Wawa Facebook page and you’ll get a coupon valid for a free 16 oz. coffee on Monday.

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