No change in fast food calories, salt in nearly 20 years

No change in fast food calories, salt in nearly 20 years

Average calorie count, sodium and saturated fat content in fast food is as high today as in 1996, new US research has found.

Researchers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Human Nutrition Research Centre on Ageing at Tufts University show little change in fast food portion sizes and product formulation between 1996 and 2013.

They analysed the calorie, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content of popular menu items served at three national fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013.
Researchers found that average calories, sodium, and saturated fat stayed relatively constant, albeit at high levels.

The exception was a consistent decline in the trans fat of fries.
"There is a perception that restaurants have significantly expanded their portion sizes over the years, but the fast food we assessed does not appear to be part of that trend," said Alice H Lichtenstein, who led the research.

"Our analysis indicates relative consistency in the quantities of calories, saturated fat, and sodium. However, the variability among chains is considerable and the levels are high for most of the individual menu items assessed, particularly for items frequently sold together as a meal, pushing the limits of what we should be eating to maintain a healthy weight and sodium intake," said Lichtenstein.

"For example, among the three chains, calories in a large cheeseburger meal, with fries and a regular cola beverage, ranged from 1144 to 1757 over the years and among restaurants, representing 57 per cent to 88 per cent out of the approximately 2000 calories most people should eat per day," Lichtenstein said.

According to data, calorie content of the cheeseburger meal among the three chains represented 65 per cent to 80 per cent of a 2,000 calorie per day diet and sodium content represented 63 per cent to 91 per cent of the recommendation.

Lichtenstein and colleagues focused on the four most popular menu items: fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and regular cola, looking for trends in portion size and nutrient content over an 18 year period.

They examined 27 items including small, medium and large fries and cola beverages, a grilled chicken sandwich and cheeseburgers.

They found only small fluctuations in calorie content and the amount of saturated fat and sodium. The notable exception was fries, which decreased first in saturated fat in 2001 and then trans fat, likely due to changes to the frying fat.

The research was published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

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