It is an ancient truth that fast food is BAD for you. Since the dawn of time (or at least the founding of McDonalds), we’ve all known that the stuff is over-processed, dripping with excess fat and chock full of sodium. But with our current trend towards healthier and more natural food, is fast food improving at all? Boston University recently released a comprehensive study on how fast food has changed over 30 years and it looks like the answer is no. In fact, the food McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and the rest of their contemporaries serve up has been getting consistently worse for you over time.
The Bad News
The study analyzed food offerings from 10 “popular fast food restaurants” in 1986, 1991, and 2016, comparing portion sizes, calories, caloric density and micronutrients like sodium, calcium and iron. The results were terrifying to say the least.
In 30 years, entree sizes have increased by an average of 39g and dessert sizes by 72g. In terms of energy, entrees have seen an increase of 90 calories on average while desserts have gone up by a whopping 189 calories. Sodium has also skyrocketed across the board with an increase in percent daily value of 13.8 in entrees, 11.7 for sides and 3.6 for desserts. Yikes.
Interestingly, the variety of foods has also increased dramatically. Between 1986 and 2016 the number of items offered at these fast food chains increased by an average of 69 menu items — that’s a 226 percent increase! So there are more diverse options than ever to get your fast food fix… you know, if you can still stomach it after hearing all about how bad it all is.
The Good(ish) news
Things are looking pretty bleak for health-minded fast food lovers, but there’s a tiny smidgen of good news that might lift those salt-craving spirits: while most places have been getting way worse for you, Taco Bell has been getting just a little better.
How does a chain that offers items like the Spicy Triple Double Crunchwrap claim the title of “Healthiest Fast Food Restaurant”? Well, since 2008, they’ve been publicly working toward their nutrition goals of reducing sodium, using more natural ingredients and offering vegetarian and vegan options.
Yeah, that was even before it was super trendy.
In their 10 year plan from 2008, Taco Bell committed to reducing the sodium content in their food by 15 percent by 2015 — which they delivered on — and then upped that goal to a 25 percent reduction by 2025. It’s probably still higher than a nutritionist would prefer, but it beats what else is out there. The company also launched an American Vegetarian Association-approved Vegetarian Menu at the beginning of 2019 as well as a “Fresco Style” option which nixes the cheese and sour cream.
So it looks like among fast food companies, Taco Bell is kind of a hero.