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The Green Life: Seven Eco-Friendly Options at Fast-Food Chains

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April 20, 2012

Seven Eco-Friendly Options at Fast-Food Chains

We weren't surprised when food guru Michael Pollan politely declined our request that he recommend fast-food fare that environmentalists can order with a clear conscience. "The single most eco-friendly item at the average fast-food restaurant," Pollan responded through his assistant, "is the tap water." At the risk of contradicting the wise omnivore, we put the same question to a handful of quick-fix connoisseurs. Here are their suggestions.

JAY FRIEDLANDER directs the Sustainable Business Program at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Before that, he was COO of Stonyfield Café (formerly O'Naturals), America's first organic fast-food chain.

"When I need a fast-food fix, I indulge myself at FIVE GUYS. While hardly healthy, their french fries are vegan and delicious. The fries greet you at the door as bags of potatoes and are cut fresh — no freezers here. Without processing, they minimize energy input, and the packaging is just a paper cup and an unbleached paper bag. The salty, deep-fried flavor reminds me of walking on a seaside boardwalk as a kid." More than 900 locations in 46 states and Canada

MATTHEW CORRIN is the founder and CEO of Freshiia fresh-food-to-go chain with nearly 100 locations open and in development in about 20 cities around the world. Freshii's menu incorporates organic products whenever possible.

"The mixed-berry frozen-yogurt parfait from RED MANGO is loaded with vitamin C, protein, and calcium. It's made with live and active cultures that are blended with organic, nonfat, perfectly spiced pumpkin-flaxseed granola and fresh strawberries, bananas, and blueberries to make a wholesome, hearty snack. This colorful, tart, sweet, creamy masterpiece is pure nature." More than 150 locations nationwide

MICHAEL WANG is the founder of Boston's Fóumami Asian Sandwich Bar, which opened in 2010. Wang grew up working in his father's Chinese restaurant and has more than 20 years of experience operating eateries.

"I'm a big fan of CHIPOTLE's fast-casual Mexican fare and respect that they're bringing environmentally conscious business practices to a large national chain. Chipotle aims to use natural meats, hormone-free chicken, and organic beans, as well as eco-friendly design elements and biodegradable tableware. I order the burrito bowl with chicken — sometimes steak — black beans, vegetables, a dab of sour cream, cheese, and lettuce." About 1,000 locations nationwide

HANS HESS is the founder and CEO of Elevation Burger, a Virginia-based chain (with locations in 10 states) that serves organic burgers made from grass-fed, free-range cows.

"LE PAIN QUOTIDIEN does sustainability in an exceptionally fresh and tasty way. They use organic ingredients whenever possible, as well as reclaimed and recycled materials, energy-efficient appliances, and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. I love their Gruyère and ham omelet. It has a rich, dense texture and bright color, and it's made from organic eggs that taste like they come from an actual farm, not a factory. Add a little of their sea salt, and it's the perfect way to start a Saturday morning." More than 150 international locations

MARCUS GUILIANO is the chef-owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro, an organic restaurant in Ellenville, New York. He claims to have reversed a handful of his own medical conditions, including asthma, via a diet of healthy, sustainable food.

"I typically don't go out for fast food, but when I do, it's to PANERA BREAD. For a chain, they're very accommodating: They have no problem pulling out their huge three-ring binder that lists all the menu items with ingredients. I usually go for the black bean soup and Greek salad without the feta. I prefer to eat vegan, so those two options have me covered. And they use washable real dishes as opposed to one-time-use throwaways." More than 1,500 locations in 40 states

OUR CHOICE: The Veggie Patty sandwich at SUBWAY makes for a satisfying lunch, especially when served on freshly baked honey-oat bread with Swiss cheese, spinach, tomato, onion, and a dollop of honey mustard. (Just remember to say no to the plastic bag.) Unfortunately, Subway doesn’t offer its Veggie Patty at every outlet — but the BK Veggie Burger from BURGER KING  is available nationwide. It’s not quite as tasty as Subway’s patty, but if you’re famished and on the road, it’s planets better than the factory-farmed meat from, say, McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

--reported by Avital Andrews / illustrations by Jesse Lefkowitz

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