No surprises there: fast food menus still high calorie

Wednesday, 21 November, 2012

The past few years have seen significant changes to fast food menus. Muesli, salads and sandwiches now sit alongside hamburgers, fries and sundaes. Given these changes, one might assume that fast food has come a long way nutritionally.

But recent research from Temple University has revealed what most of us suspected all along: fast food hasn’t got any healthier. Research conducted by the university shows that the average calorie content of foods offered by eight major US fast food outlets has changed only minimally between 1997 and 2010.

Katherine W Bauer, assistant professor in Temple’s Department of Public Health and Center for Obesity Research and Education, led a study analysing menu offerings and nutrient composition information from leading fast food chains in the US.

McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen were selected as they had been in the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center’s Food and Nutrient Database since 1997 and all have a defined set of offerings on the menu, with all standard menu items included in the database.

The increase in total number of offerings was quite striking. The restaurants had 679 items between them in 1997; by 2010, the number of items reached 1036. Specific fast-growing additions to the menus included the number of entree salads, which increased from 11 to 51, and sweetened teas, which went from 0 to 35.

The study found no large changes in the median calorie content of entrees and drinks. A gradual calorie increase was noted for condiments and desserts. A decrease in the median calories of side items was observed - from 264 to 219 - which the authors suggested may be due to the addition of lower-calorie side salads and some restaurants limiting the portion sizes of some side items like French fries.

“You might order a lower-calorie entree, but then you get a drink, fries and a dessert,” Bauer said. “Calories can add up very quickly. A salad can be low calorie, but not when it includes fried chicken and ranch dressing. Sweetened teas are just empty calories.

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t ever eat fast food, but you need to think about things like portion size, preparation method, condiments and the total caloric content of your meal,” Bauer said.

In the US, calorie content of meals will soon need to be posted on menus for restaurants and food vendors with more than 20 outlets, as mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. McDonald’s recently began posting calories on its menus.

Bauer and her colleagues await the changes with baited breath, hoping to see changes in the fast food industry.

“Without massive changes by the fast food industry in the caloric content of food, the key is for consumers to try to educate themselves about calories and be aware that just because a restaurant promotes healthful options, does not mean that overall the foods sold are lower calorie,” Bauer said. “Over time, with increased exposure to calorie information on menus, people may start to understand how many calories they should consume each day.”

The results of the study will be published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the Healthy Eating Research program and by the National Institutes of Health.

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