There was a time not long ago when all you could get to eat at McDonald's, Jack in the Box or Burger King was a burger, fries and a shake or soft drink.
Not any more.
In an attempt to junk their junk-food image while keeping pace with grown-up baby boomers and America's concern with fat and cholesterol, the fast-food industry has done away with saturated fat, tossed the salt, and beefed up its menus with such fare as skinless chicken sandwiches, whole-grain buns, low-fat yogurt and low-fat shakes.
Health experts are delighted, having for years wagged their fingers at the fast-food industry for offering foods too high in fat and calories, especially to their target audience--children.
"Now, at least, people can have it both ways, with and without the fat, and that's progress," said Darlene Dreon, registered dietitian at UC Berkeley.
Jayne Hurley, nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime critic of fatty fast foods, agreed.
"We applaud the fast-food restaurants for cleaning up their act. Considering that ground beef is the number one source of fat in the American diet, we're pleased McDonald's cut the fat where it really counts--in the hamburger," Hurley said.
She is referring to McDonald's 320-calorie hamburger, the McLean Deluxe, which contains no more than 10% fat (half the normal amount of fat of the regular hamburger), made possible by using carrageen, a natural vegetable gum, and water. The patty is lower in fat than even the extra-lean ground beef you can buy in most supermarkets. A generic version of the product is being offered at Safeway, and Giant, another supermarket chain, on the West Coast has come up with a copycat of the McLean hamburger meat.
The McLean Deluxe hamburger, however, appears to have a way to go in the taste department. Betty Nowlin, a registered dietitian and California Dietetic Assn. spokeswoman, said: "I was very disappointed after taking one bite. It was not my idea of a good hamburger. I was expecting a plump, juicy hamburger. Instead, it was dry and tough and didn't taste like a real hamburger. I would rather have food that tastes good, and cut down on high-fat foods at other meals."
And of 10 McDonald's customers randomly asked, not one said he or she would order a McLean hamburger again.
Like McDonald's, other fast-food chains, such as Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, have also added lower-fat choices in products ranging from cooking fat to salad dressing. This is an attempt to meet the needs of 68% of fast-food customers who, according to a National Restaurant Assn. survey, are concerned about diet and nutrition.
The question is whether these menus with lower-fat products help stem the rising tide of obesity. Fast foods make up 20% of dining in America. Twenty-six percent of adults and 23% of children in the country can be classified as obese--20% over their ideal weight--because of sedentary lifestyles and, in part, high-fat diets.
Nowlin said that fast foods have "little or no impact" on the overall health of most children. "For most kids, an occasional meal at a fast-food restaurant will not upset an otherwise balanced diet. Kids who eat fast foods regularly, however, will need to learn how to choose menu items carefully."
Hurley said that even though fast-food chains have made changes, most people eating at fast-food restaurants end up with a meal that is too fatty and salty. "Even if you choose a McLean hamburger you can still walk away with a fatty meal. Add a large order of fries and apple pie and the meal will balloon to 47 grams of fat. That's three-fourths of all the fat one should eat all day, and that's too much fat."
To varying degrees, the fast-food industry appears to be trying to help change that. According to the National Restaurant Assn., 29% of the population is staunchly concerned with fast-food nutrition and eat only the salads and low-fat meals, while 39% are concerned but break down now and then and eat the traditional Big Mac or Whopper. Most major chains vacillate in catering to the 29% who care deeply about nutrition.
According to Philip Lempert, publisher of "The Lempert Report," a trend-reporting publication, the chains are giving consumers what they want. "The American consumer is saying we want healthier foods; we want lower-fat foods; we want variety; we're tired of hamburgers seven days a week," Lempert said.
In an attempt to boost sales while bringing baby boomers back into its fold, McDonald's is testing new menu items. Among those selections are lasagna, fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, and pizza, which have won some praise from critics. "The spaghetti and meatballs are a good product; so are the yogurt desserts and sorbets," Lempert said. But declining sales show that the new items have not had much impact, and 50% to 80% of the sales still come from hamburgers, Lempert said.
Still, of all the chains, McDonald's, Arby's and Burger King seem to be leading the pack in offering more lower-fat items to consumers (see chart on page 19).
As fat and cholesterol emerged as a dietary concern, McDonald's switched to 100% vegetable oil for all fried products, including french fries and its apple dessert. It was not long before all other chains, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, changed their oil.
McDonald's is now the only fast-food chain to serve low-fat shakes. Arby's introduced 2% low-fat milk, and is test-marketing 1% low-fat milk to match McDonald's, but maintained its regular shakes at 330 calories and 12 grams fat. Carls Jr. also has iontorduced 1% milk and is testing lowfat shakes.
"We have to congratulate McDonald's on its new low-fat shakes--less than half a teaspoon fat per serving, compared with four teaspoons fat in Wendy's shakes," Hurley said.
Big Mac sandwich sauces and McDonald's tartar sauce now have half the fat of their original formulas. Fat-free muffins and whole-grain cereals are now a part of the breakfast lineup.
Assessing that its customers are concerned about nutrition, Arby's put its efforts into a line of three new "light" sandwiches-- roast beef deluxe, turkey deluxe and roast chicken deluxe--which contain less than 300 calories per sandwich and are 95% fat-free by weight (about 30% of the calories derived from fat). A line of four baked potato dishes with a choice of toppings, including broccoli and cheese, has been on the Arby's menu for the past seven years.
While McDonald's answer to its 370-calories-a-scoop Thousand Island dressing is a two-ounce "lite vinaigrette" at 48 calories a tablespoon, some Arby's outlets offer a one-ounce Weight Watchers' reduced-calorie creamy Italian dressing at 29 calories.
Arby's was also the first fast-food chain to provide nutrition information on its products, beginning in 1970, three years before McDonald's.
All the major chains now offer a nutritional information service for consumers, many of them with an 800 number for anyone to call. Most chains also provide, on the premises, nutritional printouts containing analyses of their products, in addition to meal plans showing how to fit fast foods into a low-fat (under 30% fat) diet.
Arby's and Carl's Jr. were among the first to participate in the American Heart Assn.'s "Eating Away from Home" program, which tells consumers the items in which less than 30% of the calories are derived from fat. The heart association singled out six Arby's products that contain less than 30% fat, including its turkey deluxe sandwich.
Arby's and Burger King followed McDonald's in adding prepackaged salads, but it was Jack in the Box that pioneered streamlined, prepackaged salads. Arby's boosted its salads nutritionally by adding cruciferous vegetables--such as broccoli florets, carrots and red cabbage--recommended by the American Cancer Society to help reduce the risk of certain cancers.
In its shift away from "kids 'n' burgers" formula to menus that appeal to adults, Jack in the Box added 21 menu items during the last six years.
Not long ago, Jack in the Box introduced a wheat bun and a chicken fajita pita, which contains 233 calories without cheese.
Kentucky Fried Chicken has added only a few new items to its limited menu.
In 1990, the chain added skinless fried chicken to join an undersized low-calorie sandwich. The new skinfree crispy thigh has 17 grams of fat and 256 calories, compared with 31 grams of fat and 414 calories for the Colonel's most caloric item, the extra crispy thigh. Still, the skinfree chicken derives over 50% of its calories from fat. The original Kentucky Fried Chicken thigh contains 294 calories with 61% calories from fat.
In the early '70s, the U.S. surgeon general's office identified diseases of dietary excess as major causes of death in the United States. In 1978, Wendy's started its menu diversification program and switch away from a tyke-size audience to more women and families.
"We diversified with the addition of a salad bar and chicken sandwiches, understanding that as more women entered the work force, and fewer meals were being cooked at home, the more nutritional the meals outside of the home should be," said Denny Lynch, vice president of communications at Wendy's International.
That salad bar now also includes hot and cold Mexican and Italian dishes. Wendy's also upgraded its menu to include a baked potato, plain or with choice of toppings. By 1990, the grilled skinless chicken sandwich kept pace with other chain offerings. Recently, a grilled chicken teriyaki sandwich (350 calories and six grams fat) was added.
Hamburgers still come with a choice of toppings to give customers "control" over their own calorie intake. Wendy's hamburger patty with ketchup, mustard, pickle, lettuce and tomato is 340 calories with 15 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol and 500 milligrams sodium. Calories climb to almost 500 when mayonnaise is added.
Wendy's recent television commercials feature the company's beefy founder, Dave Thomas, adroitly ducking cars in his haste to get his 600-calorie hamburger, in effect telling the consumer that Wendy's has not forsaken the guy with a big appetite.
"When you got to have one, you got to have one," says big Dave.
"Have it Your Way," the Burger King slogan, pretty much echoes Wendy's sentiments.
"A healthy diet means making the right choices," claim Burger King ads. A traditional high-fat hamburger can be calorie-and-fat-reduced by removing the high-fat dressings and cheese, they tell us.
Burger King, which has been broiling rather than frying its hamburgers for the past 10 years, did not have to rush into the race toward a light menu. "Burger King has been the winner in this whole thing," Lempert said. "They were ahead of the posse when they offered broiled instead of fried hamburgers a decade ago."
After extensive product research in 1990, Burger King came out with Burger King broiler, a barbecued white-meat chicken breast sandwich served on an oat bran bun to meet "Americans' increasing appetite for chicken." It also jazzed up its newly designed low-calorie (all under 300 calories) chef's salad, chunky chicken salad, and garden salad by introducing actor Paul Newman's "Newman's Own" dressings. A package contains 170 calories with 95% of its calories from fat, and 762 milligrams sodium. In addition, Burger King has added Weight Watchers ranch dressing at only 35 calories per package.
In February, Burger King introduced the "Your Way...Lighter Way" menu, featuring Weight Watchers lunch, dinner, dessert and salad dressing items and Breyers frozen yogurt. Sidney Feltenstein, executive vice presdient-brand strategy for Burger King said, "Consumers are telling us they want variety."
Sodium content in most food items still remains a bugaboo, despite efforts to reduce the amount in some foods. McDonald's reduced sodium in pickles, pancakes and breakfast sausages by 30%, but as with other chains, sodium content in most food items is extremely high, ranging from 500 to 1,500 milligrams per item. The taco salad at Jack in the Box takes the prize at 1,600 milligrams sodium. The U.S. dietary guidelines recommend a total of 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium daily. Most Americans eat 8,000 to 10,000 milligrams of sodium daily.
Still, the fast-food industry seems to have made significant strides toward more healthful offerings, though there is certainly room for improvement. Options are what the industry is offering and what the consumer is demanding to meet the needs of differing age groups with varied tastes.
Fast Foods: Statistical Snapshots
A look at the nutritional numbers of selected fast foods. Fat, cholesterol and sodium levels are measured in grams (g) or milligrams (mg).
% Calories Fat Cholest. Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) McDonald's McLean w/cheese 370 34 14 75 McLean w/no cheese 320 28 10 60 McNuggets 270 50 15 55 McChicken 415 41 19 50 Filet-O-Fish 370 44 18 50 Arby's Roast Beef Deluxe 294 30 10 42 Roast Turkey Deluxe 260 17 5 30 Roast Chicken Deluxe 263 14 6 39 Burger King Whopper w/no mayonnaise 468 56 29 156 BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich 265 27 8 50 Ocean Catch w/no tartar sauce 361 37 10 37 Chicken Tenders 236 50 13 46 Lighter Way Menu (Weight Watchers): Fettucini w/Chicken 330 3 11 75 Baked Potato 260 24 7 25 w/ Broccoli & Cheese Broiled Chicken Salad 160 34 6 44 Jack In The Box Hamburger 267 37 11 26 Chicken Fajita Pita 292 25 8 34 Fish Supreme 510 48 27 55 Carl's Jr. Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich 310 17 6 30 Teriyaki Chicken Sandwich 330 14 6 55 Kentucky Fried Chicken Crispy Breast (skin free) 296 49 16 59 Crispy Thigh (skin free) 256 60 17 68 Crispy Drumstick (skin free) 166 27 9 42 Chicken Little Sandwich 169 53 10 18
Sodium Co./Item (mg) McDonald's McLean w/cheese 890 McLean w/no cheese 670 McNuggets 580 McChicken 830 Filet-O-Fish 730 Arby's Roast Beef Deluxe 826 Roast Turkey Deluxe 1,172 Roast Chicken Deluxe 620 Burger King Whopper w/no mayonnaise 43 BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich 770 Ocean Catch w/no tartar sauce 677 Chicken Tenders 541 Lighter Way Menu (Weight Watchers): Fettucini w/Chicken 810 Baked Potato 515 w/ Broccoli & Cheese Broiled Chicken Salad 480 Jack In The Box Hamburger 556 Chicken Fajita Pita 703 Fish Supreme 1,040 Carl's Jr. Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich 680 Teriyaki Chicken Sandwich 830 Kentucky Fried Chicken Crispy Breast (skin free) 435 Crispy Thigh (skin free) 394 Crispy Drumstick (skin free) 256 Chicken Little Sandwich 331
% Calories Fat Cholest. Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) McDonald's Small French Fries (w/no salt) 220 49 12 0 Arby's Small French Fries 246 48 13 0 Jack In The Box Small French Fries 219 45 11 0 Curly Fries 450 52 26 0 Carl's Jr. Regular French Fries 420 43 20 0 Lite Potato 290 3 1 0 Kentucky Fried Chicken Small French Fries 244 44 12 2 Corn-on-the-Cob 176 16 3 1 Burger King Medium French Fries 372 48 20 0
Sodium Co./Item (mg) McDonald's Small French Fries (w/no salt) 25 Arby's Small French Fries 114 Jack In The Box Small French Fries 121 Curly Fries 1,070 Carl's Jr. Regular French Fries 200 Lite Potato 60 Kentucky Fried Chicken Small French Fries 139 Corn-on-the-Cob 21 Burger King Medium French Fries 238
% Calories Fat Cholest. Sodium Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) (mg) McDonald's Vanilla Lowfat 85 11 1 3 55 Frozen Yogurt (3 ozs.) Burger King Weight Watchers 160 28 5 5 150 Chocolate Mocha Pie Bryers Frozen Yogurt 120 23 3 10 40
MILK and SHAKES
% Calories Fat Cholest. Sodium Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) (mg) McDonald's 1% Milk (8 ozs.) 110 16 2 10 130 Vanilla Milk Shake 290 6 2 10 170 Arby's 2% Milk (8 ozs.) 121 30 4 18 122 Vanilla Shake 330 35 12 32 281 Burger King 2% Milk (8 ozs.) 121 30 4 18 122 Vanilla Shake 334 27 10 33 213 Jack In The Box 2% Milk 121 30 4 18 122 Vanilla Shake 320 17 6 25 230 Carl's Jr. 1% Milk (8 ozs.) 110 16 2 10 130 Vanilla Shake 350 18 7 15 230
% Calories Fat Cholest. Sodium Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) (mg) McDonald's Chef Salad 170 47 9 111 400 Garden Salad 50 36 2 65 70 Chunky Chicken Salad 150 24 4 78 230 Arby's Garden Salad 109 55 5 12 134 Chefs Salad 205 40 9 126 692 Roast chicken Salad 180 35 7 45 337 Burger King Chefs Salad 178 30 9 103 568 Chunky Chick Salad 142 26 4 49 443 Garden Salad 95 47 5 15 125 Jack In The Box Chefs Salad 325 50 18 142 900 Taco Salad 503 56 31 92 1,600 Carl's Jr. Chicken Salad 200 36 8 70 300
% Calories Fat Cholest. Sodium Co./Item Calories from fat (g) (mg) (mg) McDonald's Fat-Free Muffins: Apple Bran Muffin 180 0 0 0 200 Blueberry Muffin 170 0 0 0 220 Arby's Plain Biscuit 280 48 15 0 730 Blueberry Muffin 200 27 6 22 269 Jack In The Box Breakfast Jack 307 38 13 203 871 Carl's Jr. English Muffin (w/Margarine) 190 24 5 0 280 Blueberry Muffin 340 24 9 45 300 Bran Muffin 310 20 7 60 370 Burger King Bagel 272 20 6 29 438 Biscuit 332 46 17 2 754 Blueberry Muffin 292 43 14 72 244
SOURCE: The companies listed.