Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report with alarming news for the Anti-Big Mac Brigade: More than a third of American adults — 36.6 percent, to be exact — eat fast food every day; among people ages 20 to 39, the number is nearly half, or 44.9 percent. What’s more, the rate of consumption rose commensurately with individuals’ salaries, throwing a wrench into the idea that fast-food chains primarily target low-income individuals.
The widely reported story caused nutrition nuts to have nightmares of people riding an endless fast food carousel and a future full of health problems. “Fast Food: It’s What for Dinner. And Lunch. And Breakfast,” declared the New York Times. “The more money you make, the more fast food you eat,” explained Vox. “Here’s how much fast food Americans are eating,” CNN teased, alongside a helpful video demonstrating how unhealthy Burger King’s salads are. (Pro tip: Don’t go to a place called “Burger King” for a salad.)
It was all very alarming — one more story that seemed to make it clear that we, as a country, are one step closer to actually becoming Brawndo-swilling Idiocracy Americans. Except maybe that’s not really the case because there’s a new wrinkle in this tale.
On the food, agriculture, and environment website The Fern, Leah Douglas reports: “The high level was surprising, but what wasn’t explained was that the study’s definition of ‘fast food’ included fast-casual restaurants, such as the salad chain Sweetgreen, as well as coffee, bagel, and even ice cream shops.” Say what you will about Americans who potentially eat at ice cream shops every day (you’re heroes in Grub Street’s book), but Sweetgreen?
Sweetgreen is the chain where the unhealthy option is a 700-calorie “harvest bowl.” Sweetgreen is the place you go when you’re in the mood for lunch but also want to be very hungry again at like 3:30 in the afternoon. Sweetgreen is a place where people talk about “wellness” unironically. Surely Sweetgreen is not fast food, and the study is a sham, right?
But let’s look at the evidence: Sweetgreen is a chain where you order at a counter. Speed, efficiency, and robot-like consistency are prized values. Food is assembled from a bar of preprepared ingredients. Maybe Sweetgreen is fast food?
When Grub posed this question to New York Magazine employees, responses were varied. Fast food restaurants, after all, are objectively terrible for society and for the environment. Sweetgreen seems fine? Maybe a little expensive, and the lines can be brutal, but fine, overall. Then again, it displays all the trappings of a fast-food chain, including, famously, investment from Danny Meyer, the Shake Shack baron and king of high-end fast food.
And that right there may be where you find your answer. There’s no doubt that Shake Shack is fast food, because they sell burgers and fries (and good nuggets). Sweetgreen sells salad (and something called “kale gingerade,” which I’ll pass on). But Burger King sells salads, too. Theirs just happen to be extremely unhealthy. Maybe if more fast food chains started to resemble salad ones, marketing themselves as responsible purchasers and employers, it wouldn’t be so troubling to learn that nearly half of Americans eat fast food every day. Even if they’re the ones making those salad lines so long.