A diet to die for? Fast food for thought


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May 24, 2005
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A diet to die for? Fast food for thought

As McDonald's plans to detail the nutritional value of its menu, Jeremy Laurance investigates how the fast-food giant sizes up to its High Street rivals when it comes to healthy takeaway eating

The world's largest fast-food chain stole a march on rivals this week by announcing that it would tell its customers exactly what they were eating. In an attempt to get the food police off its back, McDonald's is to label its products with lists of the calories, fat, carbohydrate, protein and sodium in each item. A Big Mac, for instance, contains 30 grams of fat, almost half the daily allowance for someone consuming the average 2,000 calories a day.

The unexpected move, which brings food labelling into a new arena, prompted speculation about the content of other iconic takeaways that form a growing part of the national diet. Rival fast-food chains are expected to follow McDonald's lead.

The Independent asked the British Nutrition Foundation to assess the content of eight popular takeaway meals. The results appear on this page.

Joanne Lunn, a nutrition scientist at the BNF, said: "These are large portions and it is not recommended that you eat high-fat meals such as these regularly. You should remember the adage, 'There is no such thing as a bad food, only a bad diet'.

"The nutritional composition of these meals would improve by adding a portion of salad or vegetables and cutting down on the portion sizes. You could also choose lower-fat varieties; most supermarkets stock low-fat versions of these ready-meals and choose breaded fish rather than fish in batter."

The McDonald's labels will appear on the packages of Big Macs, double quarter-pounders, boxes of fries and the rest, though not drinks.

Critics said it added the "perception of choice" though it was more imaginary than real because there was little point in telling consumers what they were about to eat after they had bought it.

The global roll-out of the labelling scheme, is to begin in McDonald's restaurants at the Winter Olympics in Italy next February and will be extended to 20,000 of the chain's 31,000 outlets worldwide by the end of 2006.

If the company expected an enthusiastic reception for its initiative, it will have been disappointed. The announcement, made in Chicago on Tuesday, was greeted with scepticism by commentators battling against the global growth in girth.

Neal Barnard, the president of the US Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said: " Saying what's in a product is good but having the contents be healthful is what's essential. McDonald's is still a place where you should be ashamed to bring your kids."

In the film, Supersize Me by Morgan Spurlock , which exposed the damaging effects of living on a diet of McDonald's burgers for 30 days, the film-makers contacted 100 nutritionists to ask them for their advice on fast food. Almost half said, "Never eat it", and most of the rest said it should form a strictly limited part of the diet.

Rival companies, including Wendy's and Burger King, were keeping their own counsel about the McDonald's move but a spokeswoman for Hardee's, a Californian fast-food chain that markets one of the biggest burgers in the world said it had no immediate plans to change its packaging.

Hardees Monster Thickburger packs 1,410 calories and 107 grams of fat, which is more than 50 per cent more than the recommended daily allowance.

The impact that nutritional labelling has on consumption is unclear. McDonald's key selling-point has been cost. It is not what is on the label or even in the burger that counts, it is what is in the pocket.
For most customers, the decision to eat at McDonald's is based purely on economics. They sell cheap food.

Big Mac
Calories: 560
Carbohydrate: 47g
Total fat: 30g
Saturated fat: 10g
Salt: 1.3g

This is a calorie-heavy meal not for the faint-hearted. It provides more than half the energy requirements for the average person, based on 2,000 calories a day. The fat content amounts to two thirds of the daily allowance and it contains more than half the daily salt requirement. If you want to avoid piling on the pounds, this is one to miss.
HEALTH RATING: 1 out of 10

Chicken tikka masala with naan bread
Calories: 770kcals
Carbohydrate: 85.5g
Total fat: 32.9g
Saturated fat: 8.8g
Salt: 4.5g

This is similar to the pizza but contains more sugar and is high in salt. The Food Standards Agency, the Government's food watchdog, is running a campaign to cut average salt consumption from nine grams to six a day. Cutting salt in the diet reduces blood pressure, a main cause of strokes and heart attacks.
HEALTH RATING: 5 out of 10

Large portion of fish and chips with mushy peas
Calories: 1194kcals
Carbohydrate: 110.6g
Total fat: 65.0g
Saturated fat: 11.9g
Salt: 1.8g

Fish is good for you. Official medical advice is to eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily such as mackerel or salmon. But fried battered fish contaions more calories and fat. Choosing breaded rather than battered fish could reduce the fat. Mushy peas also help by providing fibre and vitamins.
HEALTH RATING: 4 out of 10

Southern-style fried chicken and chips
Calories: 815
Carbohydrate: 88g
Total fat: 42.5g
Saturated fat: 4.7g
Salt: 1.3g

Chicken is a high-protein, low-fat food which ought to make it healthy. But frying it and adding chips cancels out that benefit by increasing the fat content. If the chicken was grilled and served with oven chips it would be healthier. Adding a salad or other vegetable would be a bonus.
HEALTH RATING: 1 out of 10

Large doner kebab in a pitta with salad
Calories: 803kcals
Carbohydrate: 44.1g
Total fat: 51g
Saturated fat: 24.6g
Salt: 4.3g

It has a high fat and saturated fat content. The simplest way of reducing the fat level would be to reduce the size of the serving. It comes with salad, which is healthy, and is served in a pitta bread, which is better than chips. If chips are eaten with it, the calorie and fat contents of the meal increase sharply.
HEALTH RATING: 2 out of 10

Subway-style sandwich
Calories: 530
Carbohydrate: 45g
Total fat: 36g
Saturated fat: 6g
Salt: 2g

This contains plenty of salad, which is healthy, but the mayonnaise makes it fatty and increases the calorie count. Using less mayonnaise, choosing a low-fat variety or skipping it altogether would improve this meal. Choosing wholemeal bread would boost the fibre content.
HEALTH RATING: 6 out of 10

Ham and pineapple pizza
Calories: 702kcal
Total fat: 23.2g
Saturated fat: 8.4g
Salt: 2.0g

A traditional favourite. The calories could be reduced and the meal made healthier by serving a slice with a salad. Relative to some of the other takeaways, it is high in carbohydrate and lower in fat. Adding different toppings, such as pepperoni sausage, would increase the fat content but healthier options including salad vegetables such as rocket are healthier.
HEALTH RATING: 5 out of 10

Nando's-style flame-grilled chicken with pitta bread and chips
Calories: 778
Carbohydrate: 91.7g
Total fat: 24.3g
Saturated fat: 2.8g
Salt: 1.1g

Chicken is low in fat and grilling lowers the fat content further (it drips out of the meat and sizzles on the grill). It is therefore a healthier way to eat chicken. If the chips were replaced with a jacket potato and a salad was added, this would be a healthy meal.
HEALTH RATING: 7 out of 10

Nutrient content analysis by the British Nutrition Foundation

Independent Online Edition
Published: 27 October 2005


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Aug 29, 2001
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interesting read there hamba :)
but sadly a lot of what I eat there too :(