"Healthy" Fast Food: Are There Any Real Meal Deals?

Following New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman’s exposé on the nutritional truth behind of McDonald’s Fruit & Maple Oatmeal (which, it turns out, contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than an Egg McMuffin), TIME‘s Meredith Melnick took a closer look at the nutritional value in other common fast food items – the ones that, like oatmeal, are perceived as healthy options. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of menu items that appear wholesome, but don’t quite deliver.

“It’s a reminder that you must do the research yourself: even at ‘healthier’ restaurants, you can’t just rely on advertising to tell you what is most nutritious” Melnick says.

The food industry knows how much rides on the packaging – there are plenty of fast food restaurants who have what appear to be healthier menu options that aren’t quite as good as they sound. The jig was up on salads years ago, when it was discovered that many of them had as much in the way of fat and calories (if not more) as the burgers on the menu. In Health-Washing: Is ‘Healthy’ Fast Food for Real?, she looks at McDonald’s Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken, Jamba Juice’s Mango Mantra Light Smoothie, Subway’s Low-Fat Footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki, Applebee’s Signature Sirloin with Garlic Herb Shrimp and Starbucks’ Egg White, Spinach and Feta Wrap.

Here are a few of Melnick’s discoveries:

Jamba Juice’s Mango Mantra Light Smoothie – an original size (20 oz.) Mango-a-go-go Classic contains 85 g of sugar — far too much – and the original size Mango Mantra, an option from the chain’s Light Menu, still contains 48 g of sugar. The Jamba Light Smoothies, however, contain artificial sweetener – as Melnick discovered, Jamba’s nutritional info page contains no Splenda logo or complete ingredient list, yet by rolling a cursor over the names of the individual smoothies you’ll discover that “light” means artificial sweetener.

Starbucks’ Egg White, Spinach and Feta Wrap – it sounds healthy, yet the comparatively low-fat (it contains 10 grams – not considered low fat in Canada, where an item must contain 3 grams or less per serving) breakfast sandwich contains 78 ingredients.

From the Starbucks website:

Ingredients: wheat wrap [water, whole wheat flour, enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), canola oil, vital wheat gluten, corn starch, oat fiber, soy protein, honey, salt, yeast, monoglycerides, guar gum, dextrose, soybean oil, sesame flour, yeast (inactive), calcium sulfate, calcium propionate, fumaric acid, l-cysteine, fungal amylase]. egg white omelet [egg whites, whey powder, unmodified corn starch, salt, nonfat dry milk, butter flavor (sunflower oil, natural flavors, medium chain triglycerides, palm kernal oil), xanthan gum, guar gum, liquid pepper extract], spinach, crumbled feta cheese [pasteurized milk, salt, cheese culture, enzymes, potato starch (added to prevent caking)], sun dried tomato cream cheese [water, pasteurized milk and cream, tomato paste, whey protein concentrate, dehydrated garlic, modified food starch, salt, sun-dried tomatoes [tomatoes, sulfur dioxide (preservative)], sugar, canola and olive oil, spices, cheese culture, cream, stabilizers (carob bean and/or guar gums), lactic acid, potassium sorbate (preservative), crushed garlic, citric acid, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, natural flavors, sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, enzymes, roasted tomatoes (tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, canola oil, olive oil, garlic, oregano, salt).

For the complete story, Health-Washing: Is ‘Healthy’ Fast Food for Real?, visit the TIME website. And remember to do your own research, rather than rely on advertising – read labels and visit the websites of fast food restaurants to learn what you’re really eating.

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