Despite lauding new, “healthier” choices such as egg whites and wraps, major fast food chains’ menus haven’t improved much over the past decade in terms of nutritional value, according to a new study.
The study, recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, looked at the menus of eight fast food chains between 1997 and 2010. Researchers judged menus by using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index, a 100-point scale that determines the nutritional value of American diets based on the variety of foods eaten; the intake of each major food group; and the intake of fat, cholesterol and sodium. The study found fast food menus only increased their nutritional value by three points in the last 14 years — from 45 to 48 points. The score is lower than the general American food supply’s score of 60 points and far below the 80-plus points that the USDA recommends for a “good” diet.
And the scores of the menus from the eight restaurants studied — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen — actually worsened over time in the sodium category. That result is especially alarming, given that overuse of salt in the food and restaurant industry now contributes to an estimated 100,000 American deaths per year.
The study provides empirical evidence for a growing trend among fast food restaurants: marketing “healthy” options with little added nutrition in order to make the restaurants as a whole seem healthier. In April, McDonald’s introduced the Egg White Delight McMuffin, an item which contains 34 percent of an adult’s daily sodium intake and only 50 fewer calories than the original McMuffin. The restaurant chain also made its green-wrapped (and therefore healthier-looking) chicken McWraps, which contain up to 590 calories and 44 percent of a person’s recommended daily fat intake, a permanent menu item. And in March, Buger King rolled out a turkey burger that weighs in at 530 calories and contains more sodium than a Whopper.
The study’s findings have serious implications for Americans’ diets. As the report notes, one in four American adults eat fast food at least twice a week — which contributes to the fact that the quick, convenient food choice currently accounts for 15 percent of Americans’ total energy intake. The findings also echo results from a recent study that found the kids’ menus in popular chain restaurants fall short of USDA nutrition recommendations a staggering 97 percent of the time.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called on fast food chains to reduce portion sizes for food and drinks, offer more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and reduce their menu items’ sodium content. She also suggested requiring all restaurants — not just the large chain restaurants required under Obamacare — to post calorie counts on their menus so that consumers could distinguish for themselves which options were healthier.