Study: Despite fruits and salads, fast-food chains still unhealthy

A 14-year study found only a "modest" improvement in the nutritional quality of foods at eight major fast-food chains.

Don't let the Mc-salads and Kentucky Fried apple slices fool you. Fast food is just as unhealthy as ever.

A 14-year study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found only modest improvements in fast food restaurants' nutritional offerings, despite a push from the public and government to prioritize healthier eating habits.

The investigators studied eight popular restaurants: McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen. They then studied a database of fast food dating back to 1997 and evaluated the nutritional quality of each restaurant using a metric developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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On a 100-point scale, the American food supply scores a 60 on the metric. In 1997, fast food scored even worse — 45.

The score "increased over the 14-year period," the investigators found. "However, the increase was modest." Fast food trudged its way up from a 45 to a 48, still well below the American food supply (60) and the average American diet (55, itself far from optimal).

Lead investigator Mary Heart said the improvements were "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 U.S. diet, there is much room for improvement."

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During the study, nutritional scores did not change for the fruits, vegetables, grains and oils offered at fast food chains. But while scores improved for meat, saturated fat and calories, they worsened for milk, dairy and sodium.

Margo Wootan, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the "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."

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