Washington: Results from a 14-year long study has indicated that fast food restaurant menus have only modestly increased nutritious offerings, and much improvement is still needed.
Known for menu items containing high amounts of fat, sugar, and salt, fast-food restaurants have contributed to increased risk of diet-related chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.
"Despite qualitative evidence that the fast-food industry is making improvements to the nutritional quality of at least some of their menu items, a quantitative evaluation of trends in the nutritional quality of fast food available in the marketplace was lacking," said lead investigator Mary Hearst, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor of Public Health at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Hearst and the study team set out to examine trends at eight fast-food restaurants using data from 1997/1998 to 2009/2010 culled from the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database, which houses menus from 22 fast-food restaurants. The investigators selected eight restaurants:
To evaluate nutritional quality, researchers relied on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI)-2005, a metric developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and used for quantifying nutritional quality. The team expected index scores would fall below the score for the American food supply - 60 points of 100 - due to high fat and sugar and low fruit and vegetable content. It also expected to find an increase in HEI-2005 scores among these restaurants over the 14-year period.
Across the eight restaurants, the HEI-2005 score increased over the 14-year period. However, the increase was modest, from 45 in 1997/1998 to 48 in 2009/2010. KFC showed the greatest improvement with a nine-point increase and Jack in the Box, the second greatest with a seven-point increase.
Over the study period, scores did not change for fruit, whole fruit, total vegetables, dark green and orange vegetables, legumes, total grains, whole grains, and oils. However, scores improved for meat, saturated fat, and calories from solid fats and added sugars. Scores worsened for milk/dairy and sodium.
Six of the eight restaurants improved nutritional quality consistent with public health recommendations, an important observation for reversing the rising rates of diet-related chronic disease in the U.S. KFC led the restaurants in increasing vegetables and total grains and decreasing saturated fats and solid fats and added sugars.
The overall nutritional quality score associated with these eight restaurants, 48, fell below that of the average American diet in general, 55, which the USDA considers far from optimal.
"Modest improvements in average nutritional quality of menu offerings across eight-fast-food restaurant chains were observed, which is 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," concluded Dr. Hearst.
The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation`s Healthy Eating Research program and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.