Sunday, August 10, 2014

Can any fast food menu options be healthy?

Fast-food chains are now offering a lot of 'healthy food' options, but Sharon Labi discovers they may not be better for you.
Can any fast food menu options be healthy?
The average Australian eats out four times a week at one of the nation's 17,000 fast-food restaurants. This includes the chains as well as the independent burger and chicken shops. In the face of rising obesity figures, a general desire to eat better and negative publicity, fast-food outlets have responded by offering "healthier" choices. But are these meals that much better for us?
Elizabeth Dunford, a researcher at the George Institute for Global Health, has compiled the most comprehensive look at fast food in Australia to date and has found the short answer to the question is no. While some fast foods appear to be healthy, they are often still laden with saturated fat, sugar, salt and nasty trans fats. What's worse is thinking, "Well, I've only had a salad so I can treat myself to dessert", and before you know it you have just consumed more kilojoules and sugar than eating a whole pizza.

Beyond the marketing

Most fast-food outlets are trying to offer healthier options, but don't be fooled into thinking they are good for your health. Take the Shannan Ponton-endorsed Biggest Loser Good Choice Range by Domino's Pizza. Yes, the barbecue chicken and mushroom ciabatta pizza is healthier than a supreme, but it's still packed with 5.5 grams of saturated fat and 772 milligrams of sodium (there's two grams of saturated fat and 147 milligrams of sodium in a poached egg), not to mention 0.3 grams of harmful trans fatty acids.
"They are trying," Dunford says. "A lot of fast-food outlets have made commitments to salt reduction. Domino's Pizza has committed to reducing sodium content by 25 per cent across its menu over the next three years, while Pizza Hut and KFC have committed to a 10 per cent reduction over 12 months." But nutritionists say fast-food outlets would be better off reformulating their entire menus, making small changes in salt and fat content and adding more vegetables rather than just offering some token healthier alternatives.
Marketing expert Professor Charles Areni from the University of Sydney says presenting healthy items on a menu cluttered with unhealthy choices may make people eat more of the bad stuff because they think they're entitled to indulge. "Fast-food restaurants are legitimately concerned about negative publicity. It's a public relations move to say, 'We're doing something about healthy food options', but what they may inadvertently be doing is making things worse," Professor Areni says.
He says research from Duke University in the US found a person can feel they've met a health goal by taking a small action such as considering a salad without actually ordering it. He says the authors of the paper, published last year in the Journal Of Consumer Research, found the presence of healthy items on fast-food menus had a liberating effect on people who valued healthy meals, allowing them to actually give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice.
And even when you try to make a healthy choice by ordering a salad or a sandwich, you may be deceiving yourself by thinking these are healthy options. Dunford found that less than half the salads available were low fat - the worst offenders were caesar salads, which were laden with saturated fat, kilojoules and sodium, and coleslaw, which contained high levels of sugar.
"It's surprising that consumers will think they're the healthy options, but they're probably better off having a burger," Dunford says. Most sandwiches contained almost half the recommended maximum daily intake of sodium, according to Dunford's study, which was published in the journal Appetite in September. Dunford says consumers are confused and expect that salads and sandwiches will be better than pizza and burgers, but that's not always the case.

Family friendly

Aloysa Hourigan, Nutrition Australia's senior dietitian, agrees that the marketing behind healthier choices is clever. "It takes you into the fast-food environment, so while mum might choose the healthier option, the child will probably still end up with the burger and fries. At the end of the day, the fast-food restaurants are interested in sales and their biggest sellers are fries and soft drinks."
McDonald's is certainly reaping the rewards of its marketing campaigns and claims a record 1.7 million Australians visit its stores each day - up 500,000 since 2007 - and it attributes the rise in its popularity to its healthier choices menu. It has opened 50 new stores around Australia in the past three years, giving it a total of 811 outlets. KFC has 540 and Hungry Jack's 340.
While McDonald's Heart Foundation Tick meals still contain chicken nuggets or burgers, they are served with a salad instead of fries. Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby says you might be getting some vegetables and lower kilojoule and fat intake with these meals, but they often still contain high levels of sodium.
"It's not the ideal meal, but I recognise that people are still going to buy fast food regardless of what we nutritionists tell them. It's a step in the right direction." Food coach Judy Davie says it's best to avoid fast food altogether as even healthy menu options contain trans fats and additives and are packed with salt and sugar.
"It's a social necessity to offer a healthier option these days," Davie says. Lola Berry, nutritionist and author of the recently released book Inspiring Ingredients, says it's becoming trendy to be healthy and fast-food outlets are giving consumers what they want - healthier options. "If it means people who would always eat fast food having a salad meal instead of a burger and chips, then it's a positive step, but it's scary to think that some of the healthier options, if you go through them with a fine-tooth comb, aren't necessarily all that much healthier," Berry says.


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