The last decade has been a tumultuous one for the American food industry, marked by consumer rebellions against genetically modified foods, artificial flavors, sugars, eggs from caged hens, and trans fats, among others.
The fits and demands of real people have actually moved the needle in recent years. They’ve forced major food manufacturers to redesign some of their most popular products, pushed egg farmers in Iowa to physically redesign their operations, and has soda makers playing defense against taxes for drinks with added sugar. The industry now has to operate in a new reality, where consumers hold more power than ever to publicly reshape what the food system looks like.
There is one exception, though.
While so many other companies bent to the wills of consumers asking for better food, America’s fast-food giants flouted the trends. In the last 30 years, as Americans demanded less salt and tried to trim their caloric intake, fast-food chains served up more salt, increased portion sizes, and added calories to their meals, according to a new study published this week (Feb. 27) in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Specifically, between 1986 and 2016, portion sizes of entrees at 10 of the biggest fast-food chains increased by 39 grams, 90 calories, and added 13.8% more sodium. Side items, such as French fries, saw an increase of about 42 calories and nearly 12% more sodium. And the average dessert portion jumped 72 grams, added 186 calories, and saw a 3.6% increase in sodium.
In bucking trends, the fast-food industry continues to catch heat for contributing to the country’s expensive and deadly chronic health problems, including obesity and heart disease, said Megan McCrory, a Boston University researcher and co-author of the new study, in a statement. About 40% of American adults are obese, a condition that plagues the youth population, as well. It’s the second-leading risk factor for disability in the US and the fourth-leading risk factor for death.
The researchers behind the new study set out to see how fast food industry offerings had changed over the last three decades. To do that, they analyzed menu offerings from 1986, 1991, and 2016 from Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s. The study acknowledged that some of these chains have added salad options to their menus, but that didn’t impact the overall direction of the health profiles of menu offerings.
To be sure, just because some menu items are high in calories does not necessarily mean they are bad for health. That was a point made in April 2017 in a Wall Street Journal interview (paywall) with Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich: “Consumers know a calorie isn’t a calorie. There are good fats and bad fats and good proteins and bad ones.”
The researchers behind the new study say that, considering the public health burden of obesity, restaurants should consider offering smaller versions of menu items. They also raised the specter of calorie taxation, a controversial idea that would surely draw intense industry pushback were regulators to seriously consider it.
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