“Fast Casual” Fare (Mostly) Better Than Burgers, Says CSPI

Up-and-coming “fast casual” restaurant chains offer burger-weary consumers a better chance of getting a healthy meal than do traditional fast-food outfits, says the nation’s top food watchdog group. But amidst the bean soups and veggie-laden salads at chains like Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, and Briazz are some nutritional surprises whose fat, saturated fat, or sodium can eclipse that of the worst fast-food burgers. The review is published in the current Nutrition Action Healthletter, from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Unlike many sandwich shops these three fast-casual chains each offer at least one vegetarian sandwich or wrap that actually features vegetables, and not just cheese, according to CSPI. Panera, Au Bon Pain, and Briazz also encourage customers to mix and match among soups, salads, and sandwiches, letting customers select a meal that’s more nutritious and less boring than burgers and fries. (Just steer clear, says CSPI, of soups like the omnipresent Broccoli Cheddar: A one-cup serving of this soup at Panera, for instance, gobbles up a half a day’s worth of saturated fat.)

Some of CSPI’s picks and pans at each of the three chains include:

  • Panera Bread A pick: The “You Pick Two” combination meal provides dozens of possibilities. CSPI suggests pairing the ½ Classic Café Salad with one of ten delicious soups, like the Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean. A pan: Turkey and artichokes certainly sound healthy, says CSPI, but thanks to the cheese, the Turkey Artichoke Panini sandwich’s saturated fat matches that of a McDonald’s Big Mac. The panini, though, has far more calories (850 vs 590) and sodium (2,550 mg vs 1,090).
  • Au Bon Pain A pick: Its fantastic Southwest Vegetable Soup is low in sodium—a rarity in a world of over-salted soups. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the Fields & Feta Wrap, one of the best vegetarian sandwiches you can find, say the authors. A pan: Au Bon Pain’s 820-calorie Mozzarella Sandwich has more than a day’s worth of saturated fat (21 grams), and its Tomato Mozzarella Salad is almost as bad.
  • Briazz A pick: Even fast-food chains are experimenting with creative salads, but Briazz’s entrée salads are a step beyond. Its Orzo Pasta Entrée Salad with Chicken and Rosemary Vinaigrette mixes romaine, chicken, and orzo with artichoke hearts, raisins, almonds, and Parmesan, yet it has only 520 calories and two saturated-fat grams. A pan: The Chicken Cobb Salad sounds innocent enough, but its bacon, eggs, and blue cheese dressing send the calories soaring to nearly 700.

“These ‘fast casual’ chains represent an encouraging trend. It shows the industry is responding to consumer demand for healthier—and more interesting—fast food,” according to Jayne Hurley, CSPI’s senior nutritionist and coauthor of the review. “The good news is that all of these chains have a wide variety of soups, salads, sandwiches, or wraps that are great-tasting and rich in beans, greens, and veggies. But even though there’s not a fryolator in sight, pick the wrong dish at Panera, Au Bon Pan, or Briazz and you might be better off at McDonald’s.”

The nutrition numbers in the article are provided by the chains themselves, and are not the result of independent lab analysis, so CSPI reminds readers to treat them as estimates, not absolutes.