For years now, fast food outlets have been struggling to convince consumers they care about the health of their customers.
That struggle has once again hit the headlines, following Burger King’s announcement that it had stopped promoting sugary fizzy drinks in its meal deals for children.
In a bid to combat the widespread backlash triggered by a global obesity epidemic, fast food chains began offering ‘healthy’ alternatives, introducing salads, wraps, and fruit smoothies to their menus.
The war for the hearts and minds of fast food consumers has raged for more than a decade now, since the documentary film ‘Super Size Me‘ fired the first shot over the bow by highlighting the extreme damage excessive consumption of McDonald’s could cause to the human body.
McDonald’s responded. It was one of the first outlets to offer healthier alternatives on its menu, adding fruit, vegetable pieces, milk and yoghurt into their happy meals.
But is there such a thing as healthy fast food – actually healthy, that is? And are options such as grilled chicken burgers, which we presume to be better for us, any healthier than traditional menu items perceived as ‘junk’?
We’ve assessed the menu items across the categories of calories, fat, sugar and salt to examine the big chains’ healthy options.
The McDonald’s Grilled Chicken Aioli Wrap, the KFC Grilled Chicken Salad Twister and Hungry Jack’s Grilled Chicken Classic burger are all packaged and marketed in a way that suggests they’re healthier, cleaner or fresher.
When you compare them to some of the genuinely junky menu items, there isn’t much a difference. On every measure in the chart below, “healthy junk food” is far less healthy than a simple salad roll, and the so-called “healthy” options are almost no better for you than the unhealthy ones.
What can we learn from this?
It pays to know what you’re eating and where it came from so you can make educated decisions about portion size.
McDonald’s recent Our Food. Your Questions video series, hosted by Mythbusters whiz Grant Imahara, go behind the scenes of McDonald’s supplier factories around America answering questions over the integrity, freshness and quality of the food, to provide consumers with concrete answers.
“I think that it can be quite deceiving,” Mrs Elliston says.
“For instance the healthy choices may also have still a lot of calories due to dressings on them with fat and sugar or in other parts of the wrap or burger, so you have to make sure you know what you’re eating.”
If you educate yourself on what constitutes “healthy” and what is acceptable in terms of “treat foods”, as Mrs Elliston describes them, you won’t have to go on a fast food moratorium.
“Many people think, ‘What does healthy mean? Does it mean low in fat, low in sodium, low in calories?’ … to me, it means ‘Does it have vitamins, minerals, fibre and things that your body needs?'” she explains.
“I think when we look at the food we need to look at the components of the food and see if you have a good balance of the five food groups, and if it has a good balance of those things it is going to be healthier.”
“If you’re going to treat yourself with an occasional fast food item that is high in fat, salt, sugar and so on, just be mindful of what it is.
“As long as you have it sometimes and it is not an everyday item, it’s okay.”