Someone recently told me that they intend to start eating Subway subs again because they’re now going to be made with ‘natural’ ingredients and no artificial flavors or colors.

Welcome to the dawn of a new era; one in which nutrition claims try to buy back your dollars at restaurants: Chipotle has no GMOs in their offerings. Subway, Panera, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut are taking out artificial colors and flavors, and I’m sure they’re just the first in a line of other restaurants to do this. I anticipate followers making the same announcement shortly.

But do no artificial colors or flavors mean that the food is any better for us? Does a McDonald’s meal that contains kale increase the overall quality of the food? And how about those calorie counts on menus? Surely they’re useful, no?

As a dietitian, I deal with the above question on a daily basis. My answer is always the same: It’s not as if Panera is having some sort of crisis of conscience and that’s why they truly want their salad dressing to be made with no artificial colors. It’s a marketing scheme, and a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Just because your Pizza Hut has no artificial colors doesn’t mean it’s any healthier for you.

Chipotle’s burritos, though GMO-free, easily top 1.5 pounds and 1000 calories – about 500 too many for a meal. Good for a once-in-a-while treat (because Chipotle is so darn good, yes) but GMO-free doesn’t translate into ‘eat with abandon and feel good about yourself’. This reminds me of the same health washing we’ve seen with gluten-free products in the grocery store. Just because the cookies are gluten free, doesn’t mean they’re healthy. But they’re selling like hotcakes, because there’s always a group of people who don’t believe that.

Fast food has had a hard time lately. People are looking for more ‘natural’ options – although that word has yet to be officially defined in terms of food – I’m assuming that they’re looking for menu choices that make them feel virtuous. Calorie counts were a start, but no one is realizing that calories are simply a unit of measuring energy, not quality of food. This is precisely where calorie counts fall short. I couldn’t care less, as a dietitian, if you’re choosing the ‘low calorie option’, if that option is full of low quality, processed junk. I say it ad nauseum: quality trumps calories. Whole and unprocessed, in reasonable portions, is what you want.

We can’t forget that many people simply don’t use the counts at all when ordering their burgers and fries. They just want a burger and fries, and they want what they want, when they want it. Why shouldn’t they? Most people who frequent fast food restaurants aren’t doing it to be healthy. If they wanted to be healthy, they wouldn’t be eating Burger King 5 times a week.

People also want value for their money, so even if a restaurant meal is halfway healthy, many are far too large because that’s what people expect when they pay for a meal. It’s a desire that is impossible to meet: customers want healthy, but they also want huge.

All in all, do calorie counts make a difference in the quality of someone’s diet? A lot of people don’t know what calories are and how they relate to the food they’re eating. The research on the effectiveness of calorie counts on menus shows very little change in peoples’ ordering and consumption behavior.

I can see how using the information can help someone choose something lower calorie, okay fair enough; but if you’re eating in fast food places frequently, your diet is going to need a lot more help than numbers on a menu board or no artificial colors.

The best way to eat will always be to make it yourself.

Quality is not dictated by menu calorie counts, nor is it proven by healthwashed nutrition claims meant to get your business back. Quality, with proper portion sizes, matters the most. Don’t be fooled by marketing schemes. Pigs don’t look good, even with lipstick.

This post was inspired by this article in the Globe and Mail.