Study finds major fast food chains have ‘barely improved nutritional quality of menus in 14 years’ despite their promises
Fast food restaurants in the US have barely improved the nutritional quality of their meals in 14 years, despite pledgesto offer healthy choices, according to a new study.
The global obesity crisis and rising levels of chronic diseases such as diabetes and strokes has put pressure on fast food chains to cut the salt, fat and sugar content of what they sell. More than 25% of Americans eat fast food at least twice a week.
In the US, as in the UK, the industry has entered into voluntary agreements. But a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s health eating programme and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that little has changed in nearly a decade and a half. The nutritional quality of fast food meals, measured against the health eating index (HEI-2005) developed by the US department of agriculture, went up from 45 out of 100 in 1997/98 to just 48 in 2009/10.
“Given the role of fast food in Americans’ diets, restaurants are in a unique position to help improve the diet quality in the US by improving the nutritional quality of menu offerings,” said Mary Hearst, lead investigator and associate professor of public health at St Catherine University in St Paul, Minnesota.
“Modest improvements in average nutritional quality of menu offerings across eight fast-food restaurant chains were observed, which is consistent with both legislative efforts (e.g., banning trans fat) and the industry’s own statements about creating healthier menu options. However, considering that fast food is ubiquitous in the US diet, there is much room for improvement.”
The eight chains put under scrutiny were McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen.
Scores improved for meat, saturated fat, and calories from solid fats and added sugars. Scores worsened for milk/dairy and sodium. They did not change for fruit, whole fruit, total vegetables, dark green and orange vegetables, legumes, total grains, whole grains, and oils. KFC did best in increasing vegetables and total grains and decreasing saturated fats, solid fats, and added sugars.
In a commentary in the journal, Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC, says the restaurants score of 48 is lower even than the average American’s diet of 55, which government agencies brands “far from optimal”.
“Americans now spend 41% of their food dollars on foods eaten outside the home, up from 26% in 1970. Adults and children consume an average of one-third of their calories from eating out,” she writes, adding that restaurants need to change their thinking about the role their food plays in their customers’ diets and impact on their health.
Wootan suggests a range of measures, incuding reducing portion sizes, offering more fruit (not just juice) and vegetables, and making them default side dishes with meals. She also suggests using containers no bigger than 16oz for sugar-sweetened beverages and removing them from children’s menus altogether.
[Female fast food worker via Shutterstock]