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Is “Healthy” Fast Food a Hoax?

March 2, 2012

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Is there such thing as nutritious fast food? Or is the notion of healthy drive-thru fare just a hoax?

In an attempt to appeal to health-conscious consumers, many fast food chains have begun to offer alternatives to the traditional burgers, nachos, and pizza. A closer look at the nutrition facts of these so-called “wholesome” items sheds light on a profitable fast-food scam. Many foods that are being marketed as “healthy” are just as laden with sugar, trans fats, preservatives, and empty calories as their deep-fried counterparts.

Since poor nutrition has caused rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses to skyrocket, this scam has several implications. At best, it’s a missed opportunity for fast food chains to make a real impact on public health. At worst, it’s a deceptive form of fraud that misleads people into making unhealthy food choices despite their best intentions.

Which so-called “healthy” items are the worst offenders?

Salads with More Fat than a Burger

What could be more nourishing than a giant bowl of leafy greens? Salad, beloved for packing a nutritional punch with a minimal number of calories, is typically considered the healthy choice for any meal. If you’re ordering it in a restaurant, however, your salad bowl might be a health food scam in disguise.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) led by IIN visiting teacher Dr. Neal Barnard analyzed the nutritional value of salads from seven different fast food establishments. The report was jarring: most salads were light on the fresh vegetables and heavy on the creamy dressings, bacon strips, sour cream, fried chicken, and tortilla chips. In short, the vast majority of these “healthy” foods were “no more healthful than a burger without the bun, dipped in salad dressing.”

The worst culprit? McDonald’s. Their Crispy Bacon Ranch Salad has more fat and calories than a Big Mac and just as much cholesterol!

Oatmeal: “The Bowl Full of Wholesome” Hoax

Oatmeal can be a fantastic food. Loaded with antioxidants and soluble fiber, oats have been proven to lower cholesterol, enhance heart health, boost the immune system, and stabilize blood sugar levels.

This is all good in theory, but the oatmeal sold by many fast food chains is a hoax disguised as a “bowl full of wholesome.” New York Times columnist Mark Bittman examined the nutritional merits of McDonald’s Fruit and Maple Oatmeal and found that it contains a whopping 32 grams of sugar – more than a Snickers bar! - and only 10 fewer calories than a cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.

Starting off the morning with such a high-glycemic meal can leave you feeling tired, cranky, and in desperate need of more sugar for the rest of the day. If eaten regularly, high GI foods are also a recipe for developing type 2 diabetes.

When Smoothies Are a Health Food Scam

Though the smoothie you whip up at home may be a delicious and nutritious way to enjoy a blender-full of fresh fruits and veggies, the one you order at a fast-food joint may be packed with shocking amounts of added sugar.

Jamba Juice is notorious for serving up “healthy” beverages that are anything but. Most of the chain’s “power smoothies” contain more than 100 grams of sugar; the 30-ounce Chocolate Moo’d Power Smoothie contains 166 grams, bringing its calorie count to 900! Even the all-fruit, all-fruit juice smoothies are extremely high in sugar: the original Five Fruit Frenzy contains 63 grams, or roughly twice the amount in a piece of chocolate cake.

How to Avoid Fast Food Fraud

The key to avoiding “healthy” fast food scams lies in awareness, education, and vigilance. Order the oatmeal without the brown sugar. Ask for the salad dressing and sour cream on the side. Choose the smallest size. And of course, whenever possible, skip the fast food and prepare your own meal! That way, you’ll have total control over what you put in your body.