Eating regularly in some fast-food chain outlets is unsafe in many parts of the world, top Danish research experts warn.
Food quality and portion sizes need to be improved dramatically, according to the Copenhagen University research group, led by Prof Steen Stender, who found major variations in the quality of products offered by the same chains across 35 countries.
Fast foods examined in the global survey were found to have not just a high fat content, but also up to 17 times the level of trans-fatty acids legally permitted in Denmark, which introduced a ban in 2004. Business directors deliberately breaching the Danish restriction could face stiff fines and up to two years in jail.
Eastern Europe fared particularly badly in the survey with Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic topping the table with levels of unhealthy trans-fats accounting for 29-34% of the fat content, as bad or worse than a similar sample of KFC fried chicken wings and fries bought in the USA. At the other end of the spectrum, KFC samples found in India, Russia, Spain and in Scotland met the Danish standard requiring less than 2% of the total fat content in a product to be trans-fats.
Checks on McDonald’s also revealed wide discrepancies, with the highest percentage of trans-fats found in Oman at 20%. In the United Kingdom, samples in London, Glasgow and Aberdeen reached 15-16%, with levels of 14-15% in Hong Kong, Poland and South Africa, compared to 14-16% found in US outlets.
In a paper “Fast Food, Unfriendly and Unhealthy”, presented on Monday at the European Congress on Obesityy and published online tomorrow (April 24) in the International Journal of Obesity, the official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, the authors, Prof Stender, Chairman of the Danish Nutrition Council's subgroup dealing with trans fats and health, and co-authors Prof Jørn Dyerberg and Prof Arne Astrup, argue that industrially produced trans-fatty acids (IP-TFA) have “powerful biological effects and may contribute to increased weight gain, abdominal obesity, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.” Related research from the Danish team will be presented during the Congress.
The extent to which fast-food consumption contributes to obesity and other morbidities may be debatable, but they warn that fast food generally has a high-energy density, which, together with large portion sizes, induces over consumption of calories.
“There are still many reasons why frequent fast-food consumption at most chains is unhealthy and contributes to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease. The food quality and portion size need to be improved before it is safe to eat frequently at most fast-food chains,” they warn.
After analysing 74 samples of French fries and fried chicken (nuggets/hot wings) bought in McDonalds and KFC outlets in 35 countries in 2005 and 2006, they concluded that the idea that a typical fast-food meal was the same worldwide was “a myth”, and while the differences uncovered in total fat content may in part reflect local tastes, this was not the case for trans fats.
“The results show that the same product, by the same provider, can vary in fat calorie content by more than 40%, and in trans fat content by several orders of magnitude. This demonstrates that the same product, unknown to the consumer, can vary substantially in its compliance with recommendations for healthy food,” they add.
The authors say that while fast-food restaurant chains may still argue that the evidence linking their products to the super-sizing of their customers is too weak, customers should be given the benefit of the doubt.
They suggest fast food chains should provide reliable nutritional information, which requires better standardisation of the foods used and recommend suppliers take action to reduce portions to ‘normal’ sizes and eliminate industrially produced trans fat, as well as offering burgers made of lean meat, whole grain bread/buns, fat-reduced mayonnaise, add more vegetable, lower-fat fried potatoes and reduced-sugar soft drinks
Prof Arne Astrup, president of the International Association for the Study of Obesity and one of the research collaborators, said their findings demonstrated that eating at fast food chains was a “lottery” when it came to health. “We need everyone to contribute to improve diets and help tackle obesity so there is a fundamental challenge to the fast food industry to improve its products and get rid of harmful trans-fats which they have shown they can easily do in Denmark and elsewhere. To continue selling foods with high levels of trans-fats in different countries shows a disregard for customers’ health and suggests that these companies will only really respond when there are regulations as tough as we have in Denmark.” added Prof Astrup.
The researchers’ comments were prepared as part of a debate on fast food, with a counterpoint Fast food: friendly, by S. Rice, EJ McAllister, and NV Dhurandhar, who argue that while fast food is routinely blamed for the obesity epidemic, and consequentially excluded from professional dietary recommendations, several groups including those on low incomes depend on fast food as an important source of meals. They looked at how ‘imaginative selection’ from a daily fast food menu could reduce the potentially unfavourable nutrient composition, suggesting that a fresh look at the role of fast food may enable its inclusion in meal planning for those who depend on it out of necessity. They calculated that the cost of their selected menu would be US$20 a day.
The papers are to be published in the International Journal of Obesity, available online on: www.nature.com/ijo
Commenting on the issue, Prof Philip James, chair of the International Obesity TaskForce and President-elect of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, said experts had been worried about the role of trans fats for decades and highlighted their concerns in the British government Chief Medical Officer’s Committee report 'Diet and Cardiovascular Disease' in 1984.
“It was recommended then that these industrially produced fats should be removed from the food chain. There was a steady stream of papers showing how these fats interfered with the normal metabolism of the essential oils and altered cholesterol blood levels disadvantageously, so it is alarming that the food industry has paid so little attention to this and still includes trans fats in such astonishingly great amounts in fast foods.”
“The Danish legislation has virtually eliminated trans fat from their food supply, but has only recently had the threat of an EU complaint about this eased. It would be useful to see this extended throughout the European Union to protect consumers from a totally unnecessary and harmful fat. The Danish experience demonstrates clearly that this can be achieved with no effect on food availability or price,” Prof James added.