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Fast Food

Chipotle dethrones Subway as healthy fast food king, but is it warranted?

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Is a taco at Chipotle really healthier than a Subway sandwich? (Chipotle)

When Americans think of “eating fresh,” Chipotle has taken the crown from Subway.

That's what Business Insider says as Subway, which originally built its platform on low-fat, low-calorie offerings, is struggling to appeal to consumers concerned with processed deli meats and additives. 

By contrast, Chipotle has been at the forefront of serving GMO-free ingredients and sustainably-raised meat, which appeals to a younger generation of consumers who think that organic is king and the fewer artificial ingredients the better.

That perception of health has led to a 20.4 percent spike in first-quarter sales for Chipotle. Subway, by comparison, saw sales fall by 3 percent last year, the biggest drop of any of the top 25 fast food chains, reports the Washington Post.

Chipotle also has a growing number of devotees who claim to eat at the Mexican grill everyday and still feel great.  Fifteen years ago, Jared Fogle did something similar when he ate low-calorie sandwiches that led to his 245-pound weight loss, subsequently popularizing "The Subway Diet."

Fogel has since parted ways with the company after the FBI searched his home in connection to a child pornography investigation.

But analysts say that the Fogle controversy did little to change how consumers already felt about Subway.  Last year Subway made headlines for having a controversial ingredient in its bread that is also used in products like shoes and yoga mats, which it later removed.  It was also late in announcing its decision to remove artificial ingredients from its menu, a growing trend among fast food chains that already included Panera Bread, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

But some warn that some of Chipotle's menu choices aren't healthy at all. 

"The fact they've convinced consumers that the product is healthy is incredible," Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food industry research firm Technomic, told Business Insider. "We're talking about 1300 calorie burritos."

In February, the New York Times compiled data from hundreds of online Chipotle orders and found that the average customer consumers 1,070 calories in one sitting-- more than a Big Mac and side of fries at McDonald's. 

In contrast, Chiptole decided pull  pork from its menus citing a lack of responsibly raised meat, leading to a shortage of its popular carnitas.

Tristano said Chiptole makes people feel good about what's in the food. "Millennials care less about calories and more about where their food comes from," Tristano told Business Insider.  

That perception is summed by Andrew Hawryluk, a superfan who says he's eaten at Chipotle every day for the past 155 days and usually orders the chicken bowl meal.  

"All the ingredients are now GMO-free, mostly organic, and fresh. Pretty sure there’s nothing wrong with eating rice, chicken, guacamole, and lettuce every day,"  he told First We Feast.