Organic fast food: Bringing good eats to the table

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It's funny how the notion of "eating well" seems to constantly change. When I was a kid, it meant only eating out at McDonald's once or twice a month, only adding two or three packets of sugar to a glass of Coke, and trying to limit our fish stick consumption to three meals per week. Three years ago, it meant cooking most meals at home, reading labels to minimize high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption, and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, it means cutting out refined sugars, buying local food, and eating as much organic produce as possible.

The last one is the hardest part, as I discovered a few weeks ago, when I got a major craving for celery. Unfortunately, celery is on the list of the top danger foods, which means that when I eat it, I am also eating a witches' brew of nasty pesticides, many of which are impossible to wash off. However, when I went on my quest for organic celery, the best option that I was able to find was Whole Foods, which was charging $5 a bunch, or four times the regular price. Torn between the choice of poison or highway robbery, I went the third route and ate some carrots.

This problem increases when I eat out. At this point, I'd rather not even think about the ingredients that go into my food. A couple of years ago, I stopped eating at McDonald's and Papa Johns because I could detect the foul taste of HFCS in every bite. Today, I try to only eat at privately-owned and operated restaurants, as there's a much smaller chance that they're using vile chemicals and questionable ingredients. Beyond that, I just pretend that the hot dog bun I'm eating is HFCS free and that the onions are organic. Of course, there's a problem when eating out forces me to live in a fantasy world, but them's the breaks. After all, it's taken years for McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and the other fast food companies to put "healthy" choices on the menu. I don't think I'm going to live to see them go organic.
On the other hand, several companies are taking advantage of the customer's desire for healthy ingredients. Topping the list is Chipotle Mexican Grill. At an average of $7 for most lunch options, their prices are a little steep for my tastes. However, as my wife points out, a Chipotle burrito can easily feed two people, which makes it something of a bargain. Regardless, the food is fresh and delicious, and they pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients. While they aren't completely organic, they are aggressively pursuing that goal; in the meantime, they are the country's largest restaurant buyer of naturally raised meats.

While Chipotle is trying to become a national chain, most organic chains are currently regional. For example, Gusto Grilled Organics, a chain that is currently starting in New York City, focuses on savory, clean flavors, and specializes in steak sandwiches and gourmet pizzas. Similarly, Seattle's Organic To Go, which has franchises in Southern California and is in the process of expanding to Washington D.C., seems to focus on sandwiches, wraps, salads, and other mainstream foods.

Part of the reason for the regional nature of most natural food restaurants lies in the food infrastructure. Because of the lack of pesticides and preservatives, organic farms tend to be less productive, and the food is harder to ship. In the current fast-food culture, most ingredients are packaged at a central plant, from which they're sent out to hundreds of individual stores. Obviously, organic distribution is a lot more difficult.

Still, the restaurants out there represent an impressive start, and I look forward to seeing them make a go of it. Hopefully, as they create the demand for organic produce, the infrastructure will develop and the prices will go down. In the meantime, I'm going to have to make believe that my food is healthy.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Yes, his hot dog is healthy. La la la, he doesn't hear you!

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