Fat Percentages Don’t Tell All on Content

From a Times Staff Writer

McDonald’s new McLean Deluxe hamburger is part of a movement by fast-food restaurants to “slim down their menus to make their foods healthier, but it’s just a beginning,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Fast food is still generally fatty food.”

The McLean Deluxe contains about 9% fat, with 10 grams of fat and about 4 grams of that being saturated fat; about 30% of the sandwich’s total calories come from fat. Those are the important numbers, said Liebman, who cautions consumers to ignore most “fat-free” percentages on food labels. A food can be 90% fat-free and still be too fatty, she said.

That makes the McLean half as fatty as McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, which has 20.7 grams of fat, close to third of the recommended limit on daily fat intake. The McLean also weighs more and has fewer calories.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that for average diets of 2,000 calories a day, fat account for no more than 30% of those calories, for a total of about 67 grams of fat per day. Many fast-food restaurants have menu items that, by themselves, are lower in fat. The problems usually come when sauces, dressings or toppings are added.

For instance, many chicken sandwiches offered at the fast-food chains are lower in fat and calories but often come with high-calorie, high-fat content dressings. The Hardee’s chain offers “light” mayonnaise but most chains still serve regular mayonnaise, which can add 10 grams of fat to an otherwise lower-fat sandwich.


Liebman said customers should “be wary of any chicken sandwich unless you know it is grilled.” And even that description can be deceptive: Arby’s grilled chicken deluxe sandwich contains 21 grams of fat.

There are ways to have a low-fat meal at a fast-food restaurant. A salad may be a good choice, if topped with a reduced-calorie dressing. Some of McDonald’s dressings, said Liebman, contain as many as 400 calories per serving packet.

Other moves toward more nutritious food at the chain restaurants have included substituting vegetable oil for all or part of the beef-fat oil used for frying, replacing soft-serve ice creams with low-fat frozen yogurt deserts and offering foods such as baked potatoes. McDonald’s also offers 1%-fat milk and has reduced the fat content of its milkshakes.

Most important, consumers need to be savvy and selective. That order of large french fries on the side can send another 20 grams of fat straight to the tummy or thighs. “While I give them credit,” said Liebman, “people should not think McDonald’s has wiped fat and salt off the menu and they can now get health food there. Most of its customers will still get a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder with cheese or a biscuit with sausage, and all of those have about half as much fat as you should eat in a whole day.”