Are These Healthy Fast Food Options the Future of Takeout?

healthy fast food options

The world of fast food doesn’t look the same as it did five years ago. A CNBC report recently called it a “post-Chipotle world,” and while the Mexican chain has been suffering lately due to a prevalence of food borne illness, the phrase is apropos. Following in the all-natural footsteps of Chipotle, other chains are taking the plunge in promoting healthy fast food options.

McDonald’s, looking at several years of falling sales, has created new chicken McNuggets devoid of artificial ingredients; Panera’s sales are increasing as it expands its new clean food menu; countless chain restaurants from Taco Bell to Pizza Hut to Subway have started making changes to their menus, like phasing out artificial ingredients or removing GMOs. The message is clear: people want clean, natural, healthy fast food options, and they want them now.

The proof is in the Google searches; according to a recent Silicon Beat article, the newest food trend for 2016, based on search query data from January 2014 to February 2016, won’t be a specific item like beets or kale but an idea as a whole: “functional” foods that make consumers feel that they are making better choices.

“To eat right, people are going online to raise their food IQ and make more informed choices,” reads a Google blog post about the report. “In what-do-I-eat-moments, they’re searching for the best foods to eat for certain physiological benefits.” Some items taking off according to the research include turmeric, apple cider vinegar, avocado oil, and jackfruit.

But just because people want their food to be healthy doesn’t mean they want it any less quickly. The CNBC article reported that Panera’s success is due in large part to its digital investments, as roughly 17 percent of Panera sales are done online or through mobile platforms.

“Panera is a tech company that just happens to sell sandwiches and soups,” said Stephen Anderson, a restaurants and consumer analyst at the Maxim Group.

This translates to a change in the way that we perceive fast food as a whole.

The Answer: Quick and Delicious Healthy Fast Food Options

Enter the all-natural, healthy food delivery system – let’s call it Fast Food 2.0.

One company catering to such a desire is Sprig, a delivery startup that seeks to make these healthy choices a no-brainer for those who don’t have the time or inclination to cook. Founded in 2013, Sprig aims to make eating well easy, delivering freshly cooked dinners ranging in price from $11 to $15 to offices and homes in San Francisco and Chicago.

“We believe if we make this type of food as convenient as fast food, that more people will [eat it],” CEO and founder Gagan Biyani told Tech Insider.

Biyani founded Sprig as a Silicon Valley worker with first-hand experience of how difficult it was to eat healthy when he didn’t have the time to cook. Healthy choices like shredded raw zucchini bowl with shrimp and basil walnut pesto or chicken chicory salad with apple and basil make it stand out amongst competitors, some of whom – like Spoonrocket or Uber’s Ola – have already shuttered due to increasing overhead.

“At this point, we’re kind of the last one standing in terms of food-delivery companies that make their own food,” Biyani says. “I think that’s telling because it shows if we can win in San Francisco, we should be able to win anywhere in the country.”

Freshly may be one of the only companies giving Sprig a run for their money, at least right now. Founder Michael Wystrach, had the same problem – and solution – as Biyani. After speaking with a friend who is a doctor about his health, Wystrach explains to Xconomy, he realized that while he did want to eat better, but, “I wasn’t a person who wanted to cook.”

The result, New York-based Freshly, is far more widely available than Sprig, serving 28 states.

The Secrets of Their Success

So how do Sprig and Freshly succeed where so many others have failed? As far as we can tell, three major criteria come into play.

1. Vertical Integration

Sprig is responsible for conceptualizing, preparing, and delivering its food, meaning more transparency for the consumer and a lower overhead for the company. While Freshly is less vertically integrated, using FedEx to deliver its meals, the compromise affords the company a wider range than Sprig, and it remains vertically integrated as far as food preparation is concerned.

“We built a system that allows us to take raw ingredients from the farm, and within 12 hours have those meals shipped out to consumers so we’re not freezing foods and adding preservatives,” Wystrach says.

2. “Functional,” Natural, Healthy Fast Food Options

Both companies respond to a consumer demand for functional food – competitors like Munchery, which is not nearly as creative in its offerings, or Maple, which has yet to include nutritional information for its dishes, don’t quite measure up to Sprig’s “sourcing philosophy” or Freshly’s promise of balanced meals that are always gluten-free.

As recent buzz over GMO labeling has shown, Americans want to know what’s in their food, and they want it as natural as possible. Sprig and Freshly deliver on both counts.

3. Ease of Use

With a streamlined appearance and clear indication of ingredients and nutritional value, menus from Freshly and Sprig seem more trustworthy than sites like Seamless, where food is sourced from several places.

Add to this the clean design of the sites in question and the ease of ordering and receiving food, and it’s understandable why busy modern urbanites love this particular incarnation of the concept of healthy fast food options.

While cooking at home is still a remarkably simple and effortlessly healthful alternative, delivery options like this have given workday lunchtimes and busy evenings a complete makeover.

“Ultimately, we are a service for people who do not have the time to cook because they’re busy working and providing to society in that way. Second, they care about what they eat,” Biyani says. “Those are really the only two things that tie our customers together.”

As the dust settles, a few of these fast food options of the future will remain – and the ones that do will be the choices that highlight the most important criteria for busy urban professionals today: ease of ordering and healthfulness.

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Clean delivery food image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco