Is Fast Food Becoming a Healthy Sector for Investors?

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Over the last few years, a swathe of new fast food brands have popped up. These new brands aim to cater to changing attitudes towards healthy eating and dietary choices. The traditional players in the fast food space, those widely perceived to offer ‘unhealthy’ meals, are beginning to alter their menus, too. Healthy choices seem to be more appealing to consumers now. But do the figures back this up?

Does the perceived healthiness of the food a brand offers correlate with positive brand reputation? We assessed the data on the top 10 ‘healthy’ fast food brands against the top 10 ‘unhealthy’ ones to find the answer…

Let’s Talk About Greggs

Since January 2019, when Greggs launched its now-famous vegan sausage roll, ‘unhealthy’ fast food brands across the board have seen a significant increase in online conversation around vegan and veggie-related terms. On search, Greggs has seen a dramatic rise in demand since this sausage roll hit the shelves: searches jumped 44% in – what appears to be – direct response to the product.

Even before the sausage roll, Greggs has been seeing some great results online. Over the last two years, mentions of the brand have increased at an even more startling rate than their search demand. Mentions rose 33.6% between 2017 and 2018, and in 2019, post-sausage roll, their mentions have shot up a further 56.1%. 

The Perils at Pret

Whilst Greggs, a typically ‘unhealthy’ brand, has enjoyed much success online recently, the same cannot be said for one ‘healthy’ competitor in particular. Pret has had a nightmare year, owing to the scandal in October 2018 when two customers died from anaphylactic shock as a result of unmarked allergens in Pret products. The scandal does not appear to have negatively affected search demand for Pret itself (interest in the scandal is probably keeping search buoyant). Veggie Pret, on the other hand, does seem to have suffered on search, with demand dropping 25% in the last year.

Online sentiment, unsurprisingly, is pretty negative for Pret. Of all the ‘healthy’ fast food brands we analysed, Pret is currently the only one showing prevailing negative sentiment in online conversations. Their total conversations are significantly higher than all other competitors, though this is clearly not for the right reasons.

Vegan and Vegetarian Fast Food

In 2017, Wagamama released a new vegan menu. This caused a massive peak in online mentions across brands in our ‘healthy’ category. Once the novelty wore off, conversation remains higher (and continually growing) around vegan menu options than it ever was before the peak. This, of course, coincides with a huge rise in interest in veganism amongst consumers (see our article: Veganism, Pret-a-Manger and the Darling of Private Equity). 

In January 2019, simultaneous to Greggs’ vegan sausage roll launch, the ‘unhealthy’ fast food brands we analysed all recorded a significant increase in online conversations around the vegan/vegetarian topic. Greggs wasn’t alone in its January launch, however. Several other so-called ‘unhealthy’ fast food brands also launched some vegan options to coincide with Veganuary (which saw its most successful year to date in 2019, with a quarter of a million registrations). 

Such online conversations around vegan and vegetarian terms are much less common, interestingly, for the ‘healthy’ fast food brands we analysed, though these conversations are also, unsurprisingly, on the rise.

There has, however, been a continuous rise in search demand for ‘healthy’ fast food outlets serving vegan meals over the last four years. Searches for vegan options in fast food have more than doubled since four years ago, and are still on a sharp rise – up 31% in the last year alone.


When Greggs launched that vegan sausage roll, conversations around gluten-free fast food grew significantly. Consumers began demanding a gluten-free option, extending their demands to other outlets, predominantly in the ‘unhealthy’ set. Though conversations around gluten-free fast food are relatively low, we have observed a growing interest over the last two years, as awareness and demand for gluten-free alternatives has risen.

So: Healthy or Unhealthy?

The traditional fast food options, those which are perceived as unhealthy by consumers, still dominate the market. They are entrenched in culture and consumer consciousness. Healthy options still have a long way to go if they are to dethrone these established brands.

We have observed that both search and online conversation are growing across the board, with standard ‘unhealthy’ fast food seeing similar or faster growth than the ‘healthy’ newcomers. 

One advantage that these newcomers do tend to have, it seems, is the prevalence of positive sentiment above negative. There is a lot of criticism of ‘unhealthy’ fast food brands, mainly relating to customer service, quality and variety of food and, notably, delivery. Delivery is a growing area that opens wide the doors for online conversation.

Customers are demanding when it comes to food delivery, and particularly astute to negative experiences. They are also much more likely to complain about a food delivery than a restaurant experience. When you consider that big name ‘unhealthy’ fast food chains like Dominos and Papa Johns are almost exclusively delivery-focused, and fewer orders for delivery on the ‘healthy’ brands are made by comparison, it’s clear to see how results can be easily skewed by delivery issues. 

So where should an investor put their money? The big ‘unhealthy’ players are still very dominant in the fast food space, but the new ‘healthy’ set are up-and-coming. Even the most established brands are quickly adopting more healthy menus, and experimenting with catering to increasingly popular dietary choices/needs, such as gluten-free and vegan. Things are changing for the healthier, but it’s no time for ‘healthy’ newbies to rest on their laurels. Negative online sentiment is still a problem for these newcomers, with one major complaint being that they are ‘overrated’. This is a natural progression for a brand as the novelty wears off. The new generation of healthy fast food outlets will have to work hard to iron out these issues before the honeymoon period wanes if they are to really compete with the ‘unhealthy’ big boys.

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