You may not know this, but there is kale in the kitchen of every McDonald's in America. The nutrient-dense green was added last summer to all salads served by the Golden Arches.
"All salads use romaine lettuce mixed with a blend of baby spinach and baby kale. This blend is also used in our side salads," spokeswoman Lisa McComb said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
The change went unnoticed by many, because, seriously, who orders salad at McDonald's? And the chain only sprinkles a small amount of baby kale onto a bed of other greens. Yet the change reflects the rise of the coarse, bitter vegetable — against all odds — from the trendy underworld of health-nuts and experimental eaters to America's fast-food mainstream. For the first time, today's consumers are seeing kale at scale.
While McDonald's is the largest fast food chain serving kale, it isn't the only one. The superfood, packed with Vitamins A and C, will also appear on menus at Chick-fil-A in a kale and broccolini side salad starting Jan. 18, putting kale in another 1,900 fast food restaurants. Starbucks also serves it up.
By 2013, Americans were still only consuming a measly 0.3 pounds of vitamin-rich kale per year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. McDonald's change alone means kale, once seen as a mere garnish, has infiltrated more than 14,000 restaurants nationwide.
Kale isn't an obvious contender for a fast food veggie. It has a strong taste, a drawback in an industry that labors to keep things as universally palatable as possible (often meaning bland, unfortunately) as to offend the fewest customers. As Kellogg CEO John A. Bryant said to investors in November, "There is nothing in the food industry that is growing today that doesn't taste good, with the potential exception of kale, okay?"
Two, in a land where regular iceberg and leaf lettuces do the trick for most people, kale whiffed of snobbery. But perhaps kale has become more egalitarian than we gave it credit for.
Menu decisions by large restaurant chains have a direct effect on the agricultural supply. Both McDonald's and Chick-fil-A source their kale domestically. Details on how much kale McDonald's uses were not immediately available.
A Chick-fil-A representative said while securing enough kale was "not a challenge," broccolini proved difficult. "We anticipate Chick-fil-A will use about 20% of the current U.S. broccolini crop."
Kale is also used in the veggie and brown rice salad bowl at Starbucks, which has 12,500 U.S. locations. The coffee shops also sell packaged kale chips in Zesty Nacho and Kool Ranch flavors.
Panera, which has 1,940 locations, offers kale in a number of items like the "Power Kale Caesar Salad," "Mediterranean Chicken & Quinoa Salad," and "Lentil Quinoa Bowl."
Even the Cheesecake Factory features a "Super" Foods menu with a number of kale salads at its 182 full-service restaurants in the U.S.
Cheesecake Factory CEO David Overton told investors in July that the new menu is "our take on what guests want today and an innovative approach to continuing to drive relevance. We believe it will resonate not only with millennials but have broad appeal across a wide demographic."
In fact, Chick-fil-A said in a press release 47% percent of consumers with children say they are more likely to visit restaurants with healthier options, citing research by food consultancy Technomic.
And these days, what sounds healthier than kale?
For many Americans, trading in a burger or fries for a kale bowl is an unfathomable action. But as the glitzy green becomes a more common fast food option, it might just help a few of us eat more vegetables.
Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.
Contact Venessa Wong at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.