New research shows extent of fast food combos’ poor nutritional value

People don’t expect junk food “combo” to be healthy food, but new research shows just how harmful it can be.

One of the worst combo meals is 16 teaspoons of sugar.
Photo: 123RF

Nutrition experts at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health conducted the first detailed research of New Zealand into groups, analyzing portion size and nutrition information from 20 series.

The kilojoules (calories), sodium (salt), sugar and saturated fat content were compared to the recommended daily intake.

One of the least healthy combinations (a double burger, a dessert, fries and a sweetened soft drink) contained 16 teaspoons of sugar, along with more calories than the average person would need for an entire day, with a similar excess of salt.

The researchers refused to name the fast-food chain to avoid singling out one company.

“Even when you want to have a convenient combo meal, your careful selection can make a huge difference to your health,” said lead researcher Dr. Sally Mackay.

“Choose smaller portions, avoid sweets, and choose a low-sugar drink, and you’ll see the benefit for your wallet as well as your body.”

To help consumers make healthier choices, fast food chains need to provide more nutritional information at the point of purchase, and lower portion sizes, Dr. Mackay said.

Items that are high in calories, salt or sugar can have a warning symbol on the menu board.

Two out of three adults in New Zealand are obese or overweight, along with three in 10 children. Excess salt intake can contribute to high blood pressure and stroke.

The study was recently published in the journal Nutrients, summarized several key findings.

These included:

  • Burger sizes ranged from as small as 101g to 718g
  • Juices are often viewed as healthy by consumers, as they have reached a volume of 600ml and can be high in calories and sugar. Two smoothies provided 40 percent of a person’s daily calories
  • Some fast food chains do not have nutritional information available either online or in stores
  • Several products exceeded UK targets for salt levels, which were used for comparison because New Zealand lacks such targets
  • The “least healthy” combo contains more than three times the calories, more than twice the salt, and thirteen times the sugar in a combo serving consisting of a cheeseburger, mini French fries and a sugar-free soft drink.

Tools to encourage healthy eating could include government targets for calories and salt in fast foods, and labeling on menu board, something currently under consideration by policy makers, the report also found.

Dr. Mackay said it was disappointing that most takeaway chains failed to provide nutritional information for most products, and some failed to provide any.

The 20 fast food chains whose meals were analyzed are: Burger Fuel, Burger King, Burger Wisconsin, Domino’s Pizza, Hill Pizza, Jester’s Bays, KFC, McDonald’s, McAfee, Muffin Break, Noodle Canteen, Pita Bit, Pizza Hut, St. Peres Sushi, Subway, Tank Juice, Wendy’s, Wild Bean Cafe, Wishbone, Z Express. The seven chains that failed to provide nutritional information were: Nando’s, Night ‘n Day, Sal’s Pizza, Shake Shed and Co, Shamiana, Starbucks and The Coffee Club.

The study was based on data collected in-store and from company websites from February to March 2020.

It was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council and used information from Nutritrack, which is funded by the Health Research Council.

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