Over the last fourteen years, many U.S. fast food chains have pledged to make their menu items healthier. But new research says there has been little improvement, even though marketing efforts would suggest otherwise.
Published in a recent issue of the journal American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study found that the nutritional quality of fast food items has barely budged—moving from just 45 out of 100 on the USDA health eating index in 1997-1998 to 48 out of 100 between 2009-2010.
The main chains evaluated: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen lead the nation’s fast food obsession. According to the Guardian, More than 25 percent of Americans eat at fast food venues at least twice per week.
The scores measure criteria including meat, saturated fat, added sugars, dairy, sodium and fruits and vegetables. The USDA scores show there have been slight improvements in meat quality, saturated fat content and calories from fat and added sugars, but they dropped for dairy and sodium levels. And most concerning was no change in the scores for fruits and vegetables including dark green and orange vegetables. Nor was there a change in legumes or whole grains.
The Guardian reports that Margo Wootan of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest added a commentary to the study noting that the score of 48 is “far from optimal” as the average American’s diet is 55—and still below optimal levels at that. Wootan notes that American restaurants need to be more aware of the role they play as “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.”
Fast food chains including McDonald’s and Burger King have recently lauded new ‘healthier’ menu expansions that have included healthier sounding menu items such as salads, wraps and fruit smoothies. But a closer look at the ingredients and fat/sodium/sugar content revealed little improvements over existing menu options.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger