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People who eat out are increasingly looking for foods with locally sourced produce and non-GMO ingredients.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Stepping into a Subway restaurant – once the epitome of healthier fast food – now feels retro, down to the mustard yellow and hunter-green decor. Sandwich options still range from cold cuts to tuna salad. The scent of rising bread permeates the air, in blatant disregard for wheat's current status as Public Enemy No. 1.

You'd think it was 1999 – the year Jared Fogle lost 245 pounds on an all-Subway diet, a phenomenon that would drive at least one-third of the chain's growth over the next decade. Lately, though, Subway's promise to slim us down with sandwiches has gone stale. U.S. sales fell by 3 per cent last year, while smaller chains touting fresher offerings gobbled up market share.

The titans of fast food are scrambling to keep up with our changing expectations of nutritious meals on the go. Every pizza chain worth its salt has come out with a gluten-free crust. Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are phasing out artificial flavours and colours. Subway has followed suit, announcing this month that it will drop artificial flavours, colours and preservatives by 2017. Even McDonald's, after many wilted attempts to enter the veggie market, is testing a breakfast bowl featuring kale.

But are steps such as these enough to draw health-conscious diners through the door? Is today's fast food actually healthier?

Lulling customers into believing the answer is "yes" is no longer as simple as listing calories on the menu. The focus has shifted from calorie-counting to a more holistic concept of food, said Stefania Palmeri, a registered dietitian in Whitby, Ont. "People are watching documentaries, informing themselves, and thinking, 'What the heck am I eating?'"

Chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill embody the new "fast casual" spirit, said Nancy Luna, who writes a restaurant-industry column under the handle Fast Food Maven for the Orange County Register in Southern California.

Chipotle's "food with integrity" slogan emphasizes locally sourced produce, pasture-raised animals and non-genetically-modified ingredients. That's the kind of hook needed to reel in millennials, who are willing to pay a little extra for meals infused with moral fibre. It's no longer enough to offer burgers and salads, Luna said. "You have to have a good story as well."

Another example is Freshii, the 150-location salad and sandwich chain founded in Toronto by 33-year-old Matthew Corrin, a millennial himself. Like Chipotle, Freshii offers customizable meals, such as collard-green wraps, that ooze feel-good values: freshness, sustainability, support for the developing world.

Despite the runaway growth of these smaller chains, fast-food giants including McDonald's and Burger King still command at least 80 per cent of the North American market. But so far, their attempts to appeal to health-conscious consumers have been colossal flops.

In 2013, Burger King introduced Satisfries, a French fry alternative with 40 per cent less fat, only to yank them from the menu in less than a year because of low customer demand. McDonald's has failed to sell carrots in its Happy Meals, even after carving them into cartoon shapes.

Established chains shouldn't try to compete with the Chipotles of the world, said Luke Sklar, president of Toronto-based marketing research and strategy firm Sklar Wilton & Associates Ltd. Their reputations are too entrenched as purveyors of guilty pleasures to lure customers in search of healthier fare, who make up less than 20 per cent of the market, by Sklar's estimate. When brands such as McDonald's try to reinvent themselves, they risk alienating their core customers, who still outnumber the kale and quinoa crowd.

A more effective strategy (at least from a business perspective) is to make people feel better about eating the foods they crave. A decision by a major chain such as Pizza Hut to ditch artificial ingredients is not intended to build new traffic, but to sway existing customers who may be on the fence, Sklar said: "These are veto-busters."

While educated consumers tend to be skeptical of token menu improvements, Palmeri said, many others may be sucked in by "health halos," which encourage people to overestimate the healthfulness of a food based on one or two attributes.

Chipotle's offerings may be fresh and GMO-free, but a chicken burrito with all the fixings clocks in at more than 1,000 calories. The flour tortilla alone is equivalent to about three slices of bread, Palmeri pointed out. Add a side of chips and guacamole and you're up to 1,800 calories – close to the average woman's daily requirement of 2,000 calories.

While the nutritional composition of foods is more important than calories, menu items such as these do not encourage portion control. When you add beans and brown rice to starchy vegetables like corn, in many cases, "it's just too much," Palmeri said.

She recommends looking up the nutritional content of menu items online in advance or, better still, preparing smaller versions of salads and burritos (minus the tortilla chips) at home.

Palmeri noted that adults with a high degree of health literacy tend to avoid eating out, no matter how wholesome the menu sounds. Whether the selling point is ancient grains or unmedicated chicken, she said, "you'll never win with restaurant meals."

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