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Which fast food meals are healthiest? Anyone’s guess!

Burger and chipsPublished in The Food Magazine
Friday 9th August 2008

When The Food Magazine asked nutrition specialists and members of the public which fast foods were most laden with fats or calories. The results were surprisingly poor.

The lack of clear labelling for fast food meals means that few people really know what they are ordering. We believe it is time to follow the example of cities such as New York and Seattle, and get the fatty facts publicly declared on menu boards.

We are eating out of the home more than ever before, but the food we eat is rarely labelled with nutrition details. In the supermarket, we can look at the labels and make a decision, but in McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC or Subway, the display boards show no nutritional information at all.

KFC logoWe may find some facts available in leaflets, or on the containers or tray liners, but that information comes after we have made our choice, collected our meal and sat down to eat. All we can do then is say, “I wish I had known before I ordered.”

Surveys show that meals eaten outside the home are frequently higher in calories and fats than food prepared and cooked at home. This means that caterers have as much responsibility as supermarkets to ensure we get the facts before we choose.

There are already moves in the USA to force better disclosure. The local health authorities for New York City and Seattle have enacted legislation requiring nutrition information to be available at the point of sale. Exemptions are made for small firms with few outlets, and for companies that have non-standard menus.

McDonalds logoThe fast food outlets are fighting back with legal challenges, but the signs are good that the laws will stick and customers will get the information they surely deserve to have. After all, what are companies trying to hide!

In Europe, no such laws are yet envisaged. The Food Standards Agency is promising to look into the issue in the next year or so, but we believe it is time to press forward now. The logic is clear: customers have a right to know what they are being sold. This is especially true for products that rely for their appeal on salt, fats and sugar to boost the flavours of mass-produced, long-life ingredients. It is not difficult to do in fast food chains as meals are made to standard set recipes.

We believe that fast food is designed to look appealing but can hide a large amount of fat or pack a big calorie punch. To check our beliefs, we went to the experts.
We visited the European Congress on Obesity, this spring, where some 3,000 nutritionists, obesity researchers and clinicians were gathered in Geneva to discuss the latest science on obesity research, the latest ideas for treatment and the policies needed to prevent people becoming overweight.

Subway logoWe spoke to 66 of the experts as they looked at the scientific exhibitions, and we asked them to complete a simple questionnaire containing a set of just five questions about the fat and calorie content of fast food, each with four possible answers. For example we asked:

Which item from McDonalds contains the most total fat?
a: Large French fries (170g portion)
b: Double Cheeseburger (165g portion)
c: Filet-O-Fish sandwich (143g portion)
d: McChicken sandwich (147g portion)

Fewer than half the experts were able to identify the culprit here. Many thought it was the Double Cheeseburger, and several thought the Filet-O-Fish, but in fact the French fries come in at a whopping 30g fat. Then we asked:

Which 15 centimetre (six inch) sub at Subway contains the most calories?
a: Tuna salad (250g portion)
b: Steak and Cheese (278g portion)
c: Italian (Salami, Ham, Pepperoni and Cheese) (243g portion)
d: Cold Cut Combo (249g portion)

Most people said the Italian, and some said the Steak and Cheese, but in fact the Tuna salad packs in the energy at 530 calories. Only seven people got this right.

Out of the 66 specialists, not a single person gave five correct answers. Just five people gave four correct answers. The great majority – three-quarters of the experts – got only two, one or none of the correct answers – little better than pure guess work.

When they were shown the correct answers the experts were surprised, but admitted that if they had a problem making the right choice, then surely the average customer had little chance of guessing which foods were the healthiest.

Testing the public
We did a similar survey with a further 220 people on the street, 172 of whom were regular fast food eaters. Again, we asked questions about the fat and calorie content of fast food. For instance:

Which item from the KFC menu contains the most fat?
a: Large Coleslaw
b: Regular Popcorn Chicken
c: Large Fries
d: Fillet Burger

Only 48 people guessed the correct answer, the coleslaw, which contains 22.4g of fat. Most people guessed Popcorn Chicken, which actually has 17.8g of fat.

How many calories are in a six inch individual pan pizza from Pizza Hut?
a: 508
b: 608
c: 708
d: 808

Most people thought the answer was 708 calories, as opposed to the truth that, at 808 calories, one of these pizzas is just over 40% of the average daily recommended calorie total for a woman.

Out of the 220 people who took part in our street survey, only one person guessed all of the answers correctly. Again, most people only got one or two answers right.

It should not have to be guess work. We have the right to know what is in our food, and to have the information we need to make our choices before we buy.

Starbucks calorie labellingThe rules in Seattle and New York City

In Seattle, chain restaurants with more than ten national outlets and $1m in annual sales must have menus displaying calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and carbohydrate information.

If the restaurant uses a menu board, then this must include calories in each item, and the other nutrient information should be plainly visible at the point of ordering. Only items available on the menu for 60 days or more are required to be labelled.

Subway calorie labellingIn New York City chain restaurants with 15 or more national outlets must list the calorie content of standard items on menus, menu boards or display tags. The calorie information should be at least as prominent as the price information.

Images show calorie labelling on display at fast food chains in New York City

Research by Anna Glayzer, with additional research by Tim Lobstein, Nina Sorensen and Hannah Brinsden. Thanks to the Woodcock Foundation for their support of this investigation.

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