Healthier Fast Food Headed Here?

It was recently announced in this Napa Valley Register article that we’re going to have two new restaurants as neighbors.  Construction of the 1st  phase of the Napa Crossing project on the corner of California Blvd. and Trancas has begun, and could be completed before the end of the year.

The upscale shopping center will be home to a Chipolte Mexican Grill and to Noodles & Company.  Both are chain restaurants.  Chipolte has almost 1000 locations nationwide, while Noodles, a newcomer to Northern California, has 230 locations in 18 states.

Both restaurants seek to fill the gap between fast food and fine dining.  Chipolte’s main feature is big burritos that are built to order with high quality ingredients.  Noodles’  “fast casual” menu offers  pasta, soup and salad items from various cultures.    The pair were both rated by Health Magazine among the top ten healthiest fast food restaurants in 2009.  Of course you need to take that with a grain of salt, as McDonald’s also made the list

Chipolte won high marks for its commitment to organics, hormone and antibiotic-free meats, and produce sourced from local suppliers.  surprisingly, the chain doesn’t go out of its way to brag about their sustainable farming practices.  They have been committed to green initiatives and followed a “food with integrity” philosophy long before it became popular to do so.

While these practices are certainly commendable, finding something on the menu that would qualify as truly “healthy” is a bit more problematic.  Diners are invited to stuff a smorgasboard of ingredients into a big flour tortilla, and it doesn’t take many additions to push your meal into dangerous territory.

Since all of their offering are custom made, finding nutritional data is a bit challenging.  The company says that their burritos caloric content ranges from 420-918, but those numbers may be misleading.  Indeed, using this online calculator I find that my order, while fairly benign (chicken with no cheese, guacamole, or sour cream), comes in at 775 calories.   With a couple of additions it’s easy to push the total up over 1000!

While I am fortunate and can handle a high caloric load, sodium is another matter.  And Chipolte is liberal with the salt shaker.  My burrito comes with over 2000 mg. of sodium, 87% of my recommended maximum daily allowance.  I guess I better skip the chips and salsa!

I’ve never been to a Noodles & Company, but it sounds like they may have a few more choices that fall within the healthy category.  Their web site currently boast of 16 bowls that are under 400 calories.  Most of the entrees start out as vegetarian fare, then you have the option to add lean proteins—hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, beef, shrimp, and organic tofu.  They also add seasonal specialties to the menu, with fresh asparagus now on the menu through June. 

If you’re trying to cut down your sodium intake, you’ll need to be careful here too.  The harmless sounding Market Salad with Fat Free Asian Dressing comes it at a paltry 190 calories, yet manages to pack a tremendous wallop in the salt department, 2,760 mg.  That’s well over 100% of your RDA! 

On the plus side, the nutrition information on their website does address go into more detail than most.  You can find a list of low sodium recommendations, as well as low calorie, low fat, or low carb.  They also provide information for people who have food allergies.

It will certainly be nice to have a couple of moderately priced options for food on this side of town.  The fact that both restaurants are doing more to be socially and environmentally responsible is also a nice bonus.  Just  make sure to take a little extra time to educate yourself on your choices and try to make informed decisions.

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