Quality Of US Fast Food Still Abysmal
May 7, 2013

Fast Food Quality In US Still Abysmal, Says Study

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In 2011, fast-food giant McDonald´s announced the debut of "Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices,” a program that aimed to increase focus “on providing nutrition information that enables customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.”

However, that campaign and others like it from the Golden Arches´ fast food competitors has failed to provide Americans with healthy menu options, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"Despite qualitative evidence that the fast-food industry is making improvements to the nutritional quality of at least some of their menu items, a quantitative evaluation of trends in the nutritional quality of fast food available in the marketplace was lacking," said lead author Mary Hearst, an associate professor of public health at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"This is the first study to quantitatively evaluate whether fast-food restaurant chains have improved the nutritional quality of their US menu offerings over a period of time during which they have been encouraged to do so by governmental and nongovernmental agencies.”

In the study, the researchers examined menu trends at eight fast-food restaurants using data from 1997 to 2010 for Wendy's, Arby's, McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).

The research team evaluated data from the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2005, the US Department of Agriculture´s metric for quantifying the “diet quality of the US population and the low-income subpopulation.”

Going in, the team expected to find menu scores well below the HEI-2005 score for the American food supply, 60 points of 100. They also predicted an increase in scores for these restaurants over the 14-year time period.

What they found was in line with their expectations, as the overall score for with these eight restaurants was 48 — below the average American diet´s sub-optimal score of 55. However, the researchers also saw some individual HEI-2005 scores increase over the 14-year period, with six of the eight restaurants making improvements consistent with public health recommendations. However, these gains were fairly modest, going from 45 to 48.

KFC showed the largest improvement with a nine-point rise attributed to increased offerings of vegetables and total grains, while lowering saturated fats, solid fats and added sugars on their menu items. Jack in the Box came in second with a seven-point jump in its HEI-2005 score.

"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," Hearst said. "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."

"This tiny increase is disappointing, and a bit surprising, given the many pronouncements by companies that they have added healthier menu options, switched to healthier cooking fats, are reducing sodium, and are touting other changes in company press releases and advertising,” Margo G. Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC, wrote in a commentary that accompanied the study.