Maybe you prefer a food truck classic like a Philly cheesesteak.
Or something a little southern, like brown sugar marinated fried chicken drowning in bacon gravy.
Whatever your tastes, you’re sure to find something to thrill your palate at one of the thousands of food trucks across the country.
While you’re reveling in spicy sauces and meaty juices, though, consider the finer details of your on-the-go meal.
“Most foods you’re getting when you go out to eat are not going to have the right balance of nutrients,” Dr. Deborah Cohen, physician scientist at RAND Corporation, told Healthline. “They are going to have too many calories, too much salt, too much sugar, and too much fat.”
This is as true for food trucks as it is for restaurants.
With some exceptions.
At Matcha Konomi, a food truck in Corpus Christi, Texas, customers line up for healthy favorites like matcha green tea latte and avocado toast.
Owner Michelle Fraedrick started the business when she realized most fast food options around town didn’t match her dietary preferences.
“Eating healthy and eating ‘real food’ is something I am very passionate about,” Fraedrick told Healthline.
Many public health officials would no doubt love to see a few more Matcha Konomis around the country. But they’d probably settle for food trucks offering one or two healthy meals alongside their best sellers.
Which is what Cohen and her colleagues attempted in Los Angeles, where thousands of licensed and unlicensed food trucks — known as “loncheras” — serve up tasty meals to hungry customers.
The big question is: Would food truck operators bite?
Study encourages healthier meals
In the end, Cohen’s team found 11 food trucks willing to participate in the study.
These few were “a forward-looking group, a progressive group of loncheras,” said Cohen. “They agreed that the customers they serve need to eat healthier.”
Food truck operators worked with nutritionists to create meals that met MyPlate guidelines for recommended amounts of protein, vegetables, and fruit.
Study workers helped the food trucks market these meals to customers, using the name “La Comida Perfecta” — the perfect meal.
Fraedrick thinks there is untapped need for nutritious fast food.
“I truly believe people are trying to move away from unhealthy foods — or at least eating them daily — and trying to find healthy alternatives,” she said. “More food trucks should have at least one healthy option on the menu for those looking to stick to their health goals.”
Food truck operators also received a small subsidy for participating in the study as well as $2 coupons to encourage customers to buy these healthier meals.
Although the healthier meals accounted for only 2 percent of the trucks’ overall sales by the end of the study, they were still a hit.
“When people tried these new dishes, they liked them,” said Cohen. “The majority really liked them.”
Still, even with the extra marketing of the healthy meals, customers tended to stick with “the usual.”
“We found the majority of people were following their habits, and ordering the same thing all the time,” said Cohen. “So if we want people to make changes, sometimes they need to be nudged to try something new.”
Given the low number of food truck operators who volunteered for the study, this may require cities and towns to motivate food trucks to offer healthier meals.
“Communities that are concerned about the health of their residents should take steps to make sure that when people go out to eat, they’re not being put at risk of chronic disease,” said Cohen.
The study was published online this month in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Shaping eating habits
Other research shows the potential of using food trucks to steer people toward healthier eating habits.
Researchers in Oakland, Calif., brought a food truck that sells fresh, precut, and bagged fruit — known as a “frutero” — to an elementary school campus.
Local regulations sometimes prohibit mobile food vendors — even those offering only healthy foods — from selling near schools and parks.
The frutero outside the school — which competed with nearby ice cream and cotton candy vendors — did a brisk business. The truck sold almost 18 bags of fruits and vegetables each afternoon in about half an hour.
A similar effort in Texas, spearheaded by the Amarillo Independent School District, provides high school students with healthy food truck meals, at the same cost as meals in the school cafeteria.
Other programs use food trucks to bring healthy food to where it’s most needed.
In Philadelphia, food trucks visit local schools with bins filled with growing vegetables that students can try.
One goal of the program, which is sponsored by nonprofit Greener Partners, is to teach children about growing and cooking healthy fruits and vegetables.
In Cincinnati, a “grocery store produce section on wheels” visits “food deserts” in the city — areas that lack fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods.
The program is sponsored by health system TriHealth. Its goal is to feed 250 families each week in 10 neighborhoods.
Whether food trucks are selling to eager customers or building an oasis of fresh fruit and vegetables in a food desert, there’s potential for them to transform the country’s food environment.
This matters, because healthy eating is not just about willpower.
“If we want people to be healthier, we have to stop wagging our fingers at individuals,” said Cohen, “and look at the environment, look at what people are faced with, and do something about that before we start blaming people.”
By Shawn Radcliffe