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Average calories, sodium and saturated fat content is as high in US fast food today as in 1996

15 January 2015

Recent research on sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content of fast foods showed limited evidence (some exceptions) of any change in product formulation over a 14 year period to meet dietary guidance.  

The findings published in Prevent Chronic Disease by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging, came from an analysis of nutrient content of popular food items from three US fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013.

Three fast-food chain restaurants were selected as examples on the basis of their offering similar menu items, having a national presence in the US, and being among the top 10 for total US sales revenue.  During the 14 year period assessed, the most commonly ordered menu items were French fries (fried potatoes; large), cheeseburgers (2-oz and 4-oz uncooked beef weight) and a grilled chicken sandwich (1 available size).  Researchers used the Wayback Machine website to collate data and calculated the sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content per 1000 kcal.  Using linear regression models where the nutrient was the dependent variable and year was the independent variable, time trends for sodium, saturated fat and trans fat were assessed.  Differences among the restaurant chains for individual menu items were assessed using analysis of variance.

Researchers found that there was no consistent temporal pattern and no clear downward pattern of sodium content in the items assessed.  The differences noted were greater when the data was expressed per 1,000 kcal rather than per serving size suggesting that product formulation and serving size contribute to differences among the restaurant chains.  
With regard to saturated fat content, this remained consistent between 2000 – 2013 with the exception of a decline in one chain’s fries (likely to a change in frying oil).  The saturated fat content of grilled chicken sandwiches and cheese burgers was consistent between the chains and where there was a difference this was primarily due to portion size. Trans fat content did decline in the last decade, particularly in French fries where it has become virtually undetectable, due to the phasing out of partially hydrogenated fat for frying.  The trans-fat content of the cheeseburgers assessed is probably due to natural fat in the product, so any opportunities for reduction would be through reformulation using leaner beef and reduced fat cheese.

The researchers did highlight that data on nutrient content should not be considered in isolation, as the amount of a nutrient is determined by both portion size and product formulation. The largest change would be seen by manipulating both.  They also appreciated that accomplishing changes may be a challenge and that gradual change may help. [Preventing Chronical Disease Journal]

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