cafe and restaurant options

The illusion of food choices at different restaurants.

by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

There are dozens of chain restaurants from which we can choose when we go out to eat. Some are fast-food eateries with counters for ordering, and others are traditional sit-down table service restaurants. Probably McDonalds is the most well-known fast-food chain, but dozens of other chains dot the landscape of towns and cities throughout America.

As of 2012, there were 263,944 fast food restaurants in America with a combined revenue of well over $100 billion. [1]

If we set aside all the reasons for eating in specific fast-food restaurants, and only focus on the quality of food that is served, then where should we eat? Which restaurants offer the least toxic food?

It might appear that we have dozens of choices, but this is actually an illusion. The difference between one fast-food restaurant and the next is negligible when considering the high levels of toxic ingredients that are in the food.

Restaurant Cooking used to be just like Home Cooking

Home Cooking 4 - Retro Ad Art Banner

When people traveled across America in the first half of the twentieth century up through the 1960s, they would have found numerous diners or mom & pop restaurants of one kind or another. These restaurants featured regionally authentic recipes that matched what people cooked in their homes. The restaurant kitchens were bigger than home kitchens, and mom & pop prepared food in larger quantities. If they had been cooking at home, the meals they prepared would have been the same, and they would have obtained the raw ingredients from the same sources.

Even institutional kitchens such as hospitals and nursing homes cooked much of their food from scratch just as was done in most American homes through the 1960s. All that began to change in the 1970s as regional factory size “kitchens” began to prepare frozen foods for wholesale distribution to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, military bases, fast-food eateries, and even some of America’s most well-known restaurants.

A network of food factories are now supplying most all fast-food eating establishments with ready to eat food they can defrost and serve, or with prefabricated food they can defrost, heat, and serve. Sometimes even first-class table-service restaurants may serve factory food in addition to what their chefs prepare.

Don’t Assume Restaurant Food is made in the Restaurant

When you go out and eat meals at chain restaurants, you are most likely consuming food that was produced in a factory. This can even be the case for some independent restaurants. Food factories use assembly line technology reminiscent of automobile assembly lines. Football stadium size factories crank out “food” products by the ton. The equipment they use and the processes they employ have no resemblance to home cooking or even to cooking that could be done in a local restaurant.

Factory produced food is produced and distributed by several large companies who specialize in providing products for all types of restaurants. America’s largest manufacturer of prepared food for restaurants is Sysco. This is how they describe themselves:

Sysco is the global leader in selling, marketing and distributing food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, lodging establishments and other customers who prepare meals away from home. Its family of products also includes equipment and supplies for the foodservice and hospitality industries. The company operates 194 distribution facilities serving approximately 425,000 customers. For Fiscal Year 2014 that ended June 28, 2014, the company generated sales of more than $46 billion. [2]

Sysco is not the only source of factory food that is sold to restaurants. There are others who compete with them to provide raw food, semi-prepared food, and completely cooked food. Restaurants often receive daily deliveries of perishable and non-perishable food from these suppliers.

In 1970, the commercial food service market that was served by companies such as Sysco was a 35 billion dollar per year industry. Today, it has grown to become a 255 billion dollar industry. [3]

If You Eat in Restaurants, You are Likely to be Eating Factory Food


Factory food often contains very high levels of toxic ingredients. You might sit down to a meal of ground beef burritos, vegan tortellini, or quiche Lorraine pie, and then have some tiramisu cake for desert. You might assume all of this was made by the cooks in the restaurant; however, all of these items could have been made in a factory and delivered to the restaurant frozen.

Conventional grocery store bakeries might also be selling factory food to customers. Consider all those pies, cupcakes, muffins, loaves of bread, cakes, and cookies, which never vary in flavor or appearance. Are those really being made from scratch in the grocery store? Are they really being made from scratch in a regional bakery that supplies the grocery store? It is quite possible that a food factory has supplied them with perfectly formed shelf-stable frozen products that they just put in the oven, bake, and deliver to the shelves. Sometimes grocers might not even need to do anything other than to defrost items such as cakes, cookies, and those child-tantalizing cupcakes with the neon green and pink frosting, which drive children into sugar-induced hyperactivity and emotional mania.

Factory Food Contains Toxic Chemicals

In her new book titled Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman goes much deeper into the truth about how factories make the food that is sold in restaurants throughout America and Europe. She describes how the public is being deceived by food manufacturers and many restaurants. She states:

You might even boycott the most obvious forms of nutritionally compromised, blatantly degraded offerings, and yet you will still find it hard to avoid the 6,000 food additives – flavourings, glazing agents, improvers, anti-caking agents, solvents, preservatives, colourings, acids, emulsifiers, releasing agents, antioxidants, thickeners, bleaching agents, sweeteners, chelators – and the undisclosed ’processing aids’, that are routinely employed behind the scenes of contemporary food manufacture.

That upmarket cured ham and salami, that ’artisan’ sourdough loaf, that seemingly authentic Levantine halva, that ’traditional’ extra mature, vintage Cheddar cheese, those supposedly health-promoting, rustic-looking breakfast cereals, those luxurious Belgian chocolates, those specialty coffees and miraculous probiotic drinks, those virginal yogurts that seem as pure as driven snow, … and much, much more may all have had a more intimate relationship with state-of-the-art food manufacture technology than we appreciate. [4]

Can We Judge the Quality of Food by Its Appearance?

Chef in hotel or restaurant kitchen cooking, only hands.

Chefs may dress up the food to look nice, but almost all restaurants source their food from the same suppliers.

When you are cooking up your chicken at home, do you reach into your pantry to grab a dash of dimethylpolysiloxane? How about a pinch of tertiary butylhydroquinone? These are the kinds of ingredients used by food factories when preparing one of America’s most popular forms of “chicken.” You can’t see these ingredients in a chicken nugget or in anything else!

Dr. Mercola adds some additional information about the prominent place of these chemicals in the food that children have been taught to crave by conventional media advertisers. He stated:

[Dimethylpolysiloxane and tertiary butylhydroquinone] are just two of the ingredients in a McDonalds Chicken McNugget. Only 50 percent of a McNugget is actually chicken. The other 50 percent includes corn derivatives, sugars, leavening agents, and completely synthetic ingredients that no home cook would have in her pantry. Dimethylpolysiloxane is an anti-foaming agent made of silicone. Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is a chemical preservative so deadly that just five grams can kill you. [5]

Dr. Mercola’s article provided even more details about the composition of this fast-food favorite. He listed the ingredients as they existed in 2010:

“White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, extractives of rosemary).

Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.” [6]

I am not singling out McDonalds as the only source of such food. All fast-food chain restaurants serve equivalent quality factory food. These restaurants may have dozens of different names and offer a wide variety of cuisines, however, most every one of them received deliveries of highly processed and pre-made food from food factories. To some degree, they all participate in the deception that they are making all the food they serve. The truth is that they are often doing nothing more than heating and serving food that was produced in a factory.

Southern fried chicken nuggets and French fries in red and white striped boxes, isolated on a white background.

The burgers and fries might be cooked on the premises, but have you ever seen anyone in your local McDonalds store cutting up whole chicken breast into nuggets, hand battering the pieces and deep frying them to perfection? Have you ever seen anyone rolling out pie crust and making those crispy apple desserts? These are prefabricated products, which are similar to the thousands of products that food factories provide to restaurant chains throughout America.

It is not only fast-food chains that purchase this type of industrial food. Thousands of independent restaurants do the same. A local steak house, an oriental restaurant, a pizza store, your school cafeteria, airport food vendors, and grocery stores with self-serve hot food and salad bars share many of the same sources for food.

Some chains have a single entity that negotiates prices and provides all the food and restaurant supplies that are needed by each restaurant, while others have a less centralized set of individual suppliers. In many cases, little information is available about the sources in the supply chain that fill the freezers and shelves at specific restaurants.

It appears that fast-food restaurants no longer want to be associated with specific factory food suppliers, so it is hard to make an exact connection in most cases. However, it should be obvious that if a chain that consists of several thousand fast-food restaurants spread across the country sells exactly the same food in every location, then their food is being centrally prepared and distributed.

The Restaurant Industry Wants You to Believe Their Food is Getting Healthier

A gluten free breads on wood background

Joanna Blythman continues her description of factory manufactured food. She explains that the food industry is working hard in 2015 to clean up their bad image. She states:

Over the last few years, many food companies have embarked on an operation dubbed ’clean label’, with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives from labels, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign. Many of the factory-made, processed foods on our shelves have discreetly undergone a before-and-after makeover, and many have also been relabeled with confidence inducing buzzwords such as ’antioxidant’, ’gluten-free’, ’whole grain’, ’more of’, ’less of’, ’high in’, ’low in’, ’reduced sugar’, etc., which psychologically prime us to infer that they bring an overall health benefit to our tables. It all comes together to make a seemingly informative chorus. [7]

Are Food Factories Interested in Producing Healthy Food?

Joanna Blythman reveals how the mind of a food technology specialist functions. She explains that the concepts, goals, behaviors and ethos of factory based food manufacturers are radically different from any form of domestic food preparation. She contrasts the differences this way:

When the home cook decides to make a Bakewell tart, for instance, she or he looks out a recipe, puts together a lineup of well-established ingredients – raspberry jam, flour, butter, whole eggs, almonds, butter and sugar – and then bakes it in a tried-and-tested way.

The factory food technologist, on the other hand, approaches this venerable confection from a totally different angle. What alternative ingredients can we use to create a Bakewell tart-style product, while replacing or reducing expensive ingredients – those costly nuts, butter and berries? How can we cut the amount of butter, yet boost that buttery flavour, while disguising the addition of cheaper fats with an inferior taste profile? What sweeteners can we add to lower the tart’s blatant sugar content and justify a ’reduced calorie’ label? How many times can we re-use the pastry left over from each production run in subsequent ones? What antioxidants could we throw into the mix to prolong the tart’s shelf life? Which enzyme would keep the almond sponge layer moist for longer? Might we use a long-life raspberry puree and gel mixture instead of conventional jam? What about coating the almond sponge layer with an invisible edible film that would keep the almonds crunchy for weeks? Could we substitute some starch for a proportion of the flour to give a more voluminously risen result? Would powdered, rather than pasteurised liquid egg, stick less to the equipment on the production line? Could we use a modified protein to do away with the eggs altogether, or to mimic fat? And so on. [8]

How the Factory Food Industry Defines Taste

Americans have been taught to confuse a strong flavor with a delicious flavor. I am someone who enjoys cooking. When I cook, I assume that every pot of chicken soup I make, for example, will be slightly different from the previous batch of soup even when I use an identical list of ingredients. My mood, the time allotted for cooking, my creative inspiration, and the availability of fresh ingredients will all affect the final outcome. My soup varies from batch to batch, which is part of what makes home cooking so interesting. However, in food factories, variability is called inconsistency, and that is an absolute horror to food manufacturers.

Factory food manufacturers require standardization. Every batch of cheese tortellini must have the exact flavor and texture as every other batch. To accomplish this they employ a large number of flavorings, texturizers, and stabilizers. They don’t depend on the natural flavors in food. They actually are happy to start with completely tasteless substances and turn them into a food product, which they have engineered to have a distinctive flavor profile.

Food Quality not Recognized as Affecting Health

Food quality is no longer seen by conventional medicine as having any relationship to health. It is no wonder that the corporations that manufacture factory food also have the same attitudes. To these corporations, freshly chopped and sautéed onion is the same as liquefied caramelized onion concentrate. Bouillon cubes are equivalent to freshly made meat broth. Fresh fruit is equivalent to a combination of sugar, fruit flavoring, coloring, starch, gelatin, vitamin C, and various antioxidants. To them, food is nothing more than chemistry, and food manufacturing is just another opportunity for producing the lowest cost product possible for the sake of turning a big profit.

Factory Food Produces Food Addicts

Obese-WomanIn addition to the poor quality of factory food, it is highly addictive. We now know that the tobacco industry was manipulating the content of addictive chemicals in their products to keep customers hooked. They denied it for generations, but eventually, as always, the truth reaches the light. I believe the darkest secret of the factory food business is that they are using addictive chemicals to keep people coming back to buy their food again and again. I believe someday we will learn that there are specific addictive chemicals that are being intentionally added to make sugar, salt, and fat even more addictive. [9]

Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D., described how the producers of factory food make their food addictive. He stated:

Food made with sugar, fat, and salt can be addictive. Especially when combined in secret ways the food industry will not share or make public. We are biologically wired to crave these foods and eat as much of them as possible. … The problems with food addiction are compound by the fact that food manufacturers refuse to release any internal data on how they put ingredients together to maximize consumption of their food products despite requests from researchers. [10]

Industrial food manufacturers are aware of the addictive qualities of their food, regardless of whether the food is produced for restaurants or for direct consumer sales in grocery stores. They know that their food is addictive and directly causes obesity, however, they prefer to keep making and advertizing highly addictive foods, because of the high profitability.

Chief Executives from eleven major processed food manufacturers met in 1998 to learn about how their food and their marketing strategies were causing the epidemic of obesity in America. This meeting was reported in 2013 in a New York Times article. The article stated:

The first speaker was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. … Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the expertise of scientists — its own and others — to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in overconsumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industrywide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.

“We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution,” Mudd concluded. “And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.” [11]

The executives rejected the proposal. Stephen Sanger, who was the head of General Mills at that time stood up and gave his response. This is how the New York Times reported his comments:

Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle. … Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting. [12]

Conclusion: Don’t Depend on Restaurants to Serve Healthy Food

There are some very conscientious restaurant owners and chefs who serve only food they personally make and who obtain ingredients from organic and local sources whenever possible. These businesses deserve our patronage. However, they are a very small minority. Today, most food service businesses, whether they operate restaurants or grocery stores, depend on factory food producers to survive.

We cannot depend upon restaurants or other sources of conventionally processed food to uphold high standards of nutrition for us. If we want to be healthy, live healthy, and eat healthy, then we must make that decision, and keep making it every day. We need to take firm steps to make that choice a reality when we eat at home and when we eat away from home.

We cannot escape factory food by simply buying unprocessed conventionally grown food. Even grocery store salad bars and fruit bars are not free of toxic contamination. They are contaminated with numerous pesticides, but there are even more hidden dangers.

Investigative researcher and writer Joanna Blythman explains why you don’t want to trust a salad bar. She is the author of Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets. She went under cover and surreptitiously attended a food technology conference for factory food makers. This is one of the points reported in her book:

Agricoat makes a fruit solution called “NatureSeal,” which adds 21 days to the shelf life of fresh fruit. Treated in this way, carrots don’t develop that tell-tale white that makes them look old, cut apples don’t turn brown, pears don’t become translucent, melons don’t ooze, and kiwis don’t collapse into a jellied mush. As for leafy salads, a dip in NatureSeal leaves them ’appearing fresh and natural’. … Because NatureSeal is classed as a processing aid, and not an ingredient, there is no need to declare it on the label, no obligation to tell consumers that their ’fresh’ fruit salad was weeks old. [13]

It is possible to change the way we think about eating in restaurants. We don’t have to use food as entertainment. We don’t have to turn nutrition into rewards and treats. We can focus our attention on eating whole unprocessed foods as much as possible.

Food that has been produced by conventional farming methods will be toxic, because of the chemicals used in its production. Factory food made from conventional ingredients will have other chemicals added to give it texture, color, flavor, and aroma. Additionally, numerous processing aids that help make equipment run more efficiently will be used such as antifoaming agents. Preservatives, stabilizers, and conditioners will be added to cut costs and extend shelf life.

We may think we have choices when we go out to eat, but the truth is that any restaurant that serves conventionally grown food will provide us with a big dose of toxins. Any restaurant that sells factory food made from conventionally grown ingredients is providing meals with even higher levels of toxins.

When evaluating the items on a restaurant menu, we need to consider the totality of the items we might eat. Some ingredients on the menu might sounds safe, but others will still contain toxic ingredients. I read about a well-known fast-food restaurant chain that says they sell grass-fed beef burgers. However, everything else on the menu looked like standard fast-food options. Is it really more healthy to have a grass-fed burger served on a bun that contains chemical dough conditioners and preservatives? Is it really a healthy option to wash it down with a beverage containing large amounts of sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Is it really a healthy option to add frozen dairy desserts from conventional sources, which contain growth hormones, antibiotics, and high fructose corn syrup?

When we look across the landscape of fast-food and other chain restaurants, and wonder where we should eat, the answer is “nowhere,” that is if you want to avoid food that can be harmful to your health. Fast-food restaurants specialize in trying to convince us that their brand tastes the best. Beyond taste, they want us to believe that their food will give us the greatest joy and the biggest bang for the dollars we spend. The reality is that they are basically all the same and our decision to select one over the other is most likely due to successful marketing rather than to actual quality differences between them.

It is really not a hardship to eat at home and make our own food from whole fresh ingredients. It is also not a hardship to take home-made food with us when we travel and need to eat away from home. It is all about priorities. Eating home-made food often takes more planning than effort, however the reward is great – better health, better digestion, and better nutrition. Perhaps it’s time to give your body a real break today — give yourself and your family real food and enjoy the many health benefits.


[1] “These Disturbing Fast Food Truths Will Make You Reconsider Your Lunch,” Renee Jacques, Huffington Post, 11/20/2013, Retrieved 7/22/2015.

[2] “Sysco,” homepage, Retrieved 7/13/2015.

[3] “About Sysco,” Retrieved 7/13/2015.

[4] Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman, First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Fourth Estate, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF, page 3.

[5] “Do You Have Any Idea of the Chemicals Used in Fast Food Chicken?” Dr. Joseph Mercola, 10/8/2010, Retrieved, 7/13/2015.

[6] IBID.

[7] Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman, First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Fourth Estate, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF, page 4.

[8] Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman, First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Fourth Estate, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF, page 11.

[9] “Food Addiction: Could It Explain Why 70 Percent of America Is Fat?” Dr. Mark Hyman, MD; Last Updated October 18, 2014, Retrieved 7/22/2015.

[10] IBID.

[11] “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss, The New York Times, 2/20/2013, Retrieved 7/23/2015.

[12] IBID.

[13] Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman, First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Fourth Estate, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF, page 84.