Fat in fast foods

Fat in fast foods – evolving changes

Jo Ellen Shields

Fat in Fast Foods — Evolving Changes

American eat one in 12 meals in fast-food restaurants where they spend an average of $200 a year per person; many predict an increase in the future. Fast food is popular because it is quick, convenient, tasty and fairly inexpensive. However, many of the items offered are considered high in fat, particularly saturated fat (SF).

As consumers become more aware of the importance of reducing the amount of SF they eat, they have become concerned about the nutritional quality of fast food. In response to consumer concern, the fast-food industry has been taking steps to offer more nutritious foods, such as salads and baked potatoes, and to reduce the amount of SF in its more traditional food offerings. This article will highlight the nutritional changes that the fast-food industry has made over the years.



The fast-food phenomenon started in 1955, when the doors of the first McDonald’s restaurant were opened in Des Plainess, Il. Since this modest origin, fast food has grown into a multibillion-dollar business, capturing 40% of the money spent on meals away from home. In 1987, the three leading fast-food chains were McDonald’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, with annual sales of $14.1, $5.6 and $3.7 billion, respectively.

The number of consumers eating at fast-food restaurants has reached an industry high. In 1989, 7.7% of adults ate breakfast, 48.9% ate lunch and 31.6% ate dinner at fastfood restaurants. Further, 44.9% of these consumers ate from one to three fast-food meals a week, while 11.4% ate fast food more than four times weekly.

Several factors have contributed to the phenomenal growth of the fast-food industry: a growing number of women are working outside the home and have less time for food preparation; a greater number of people live alone and lack the desire to cook for themselves; lifestyles have become less formal; fast-food restaurants are convenient and help meet rushed mealtime needs; disposable income and recreation and travel opportunities have increased; and extensive advertising has elevated product awareness. Additionally, Amercians enjoy the taste of fast food, and prices are reasonable.


Because so many Americans consume fast food, many health professionals as well as consumers are concerned about its nutritonal quality. Although in general fast foods provide adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and B-complex vitamins, most have a high nutrient density for calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol. In addition, these meals tend to be low in dietary fiber, vitamin C and calcium.

Deep-fat frying–the cooking method most often used in fastfood establishments–is the primary source of the 40 to 50% of calories coming from fat. Even though fast-food restaurants are shifting to the use of vegetable oils for deep-fat frying, when these oils are continuously subjected to high cooking temperatures (or when food fragments accumulate during the cooking process) they become more saturated. Deep-fried foods are not the only source of fat: a 10-oz chocolae milkshake has on average 10.5 g of fat, compared with 8.5 g in 8 oz of whole milk. Depending on the serving size and the amount of added condiments, the fat content of a hamburger can range from 13 to 45 g. The average homemade hamburger provides 23 g without condiments.



Recent reports by the Surgeon General and the National Research Council confirm previous reports regarding the adverse relationship between dietary SF, total fat and cholesterol, and the health of Americans. Both reports provide a rationale for the National Cholesterol Education Program recommendations and identify the reduction of the calories from the fat from 37 to 30% of total calories as the number-one national priority, Further, the Surgeon General’s report challenges the food industry to increase the availability of low-fat food and food products.


During the past few years, the fastfood industry has taken steps to improve the nutritional quality of its food in response to recommendations by health authoriries and consumer demand. They have expanded their menus to include more of a variety of foods such as grilled chicken sandwiches, breaffast items, baked potatoes, chili and fresh and packaged salads.

In 1986, at least five of the major chains switched from an animal-vegetable shortening to an all-vegetable blend for all-purpose frying of foods except for french fries because of flavor considerations. Only one has started using all-vegetable oil for its french fries. According to the 1988 National Restaurant Association survey, in which 75% of respondents operated fast-food restaurants, 57% used either vegetable oil or vegetable shortening exlusively for frying, 32% used all-vegetable shortening, 21% used all-vegetable oil and 4% used both. Twenty-five percent of the operators used more than one type of fat.

To helf consumers make informed choices, the fast-food industry is making product contents available upon consumer request. Legislation is currently under review that would mandate nutrient disclosure directly on all product packaging, including that of fast food. Although the fast-food industry has made attempts to improve the nutritional quality of its food, it has an even greater potential to decrease further total fat and SF in the future by using fat replacements.



Fat replacements can partially substitute for the fat while preserving desirable taste and organoleptic qualitites. In addition to those already on the market, several fat replacements are currently under development by industry or under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). New caloriefree and calorie-reduced substitutes may be available in the next 1 to 10 years.

Calorie-Free Fat Substitutes. Calorie-free fat substitutes contribute no fat, calories or cholesterol to the diet because they are not digested or absorbed. Some examples of calorie-free fat substitutes include olestra, DDM, EPG and TATCA.

Olestra. Olestra (a subset of sucrose polyesters) is a noncaloric, cholesterol-free fat replacement not digested or absorbed by the body. It is made of esters of sucrose with 6, 7 or 8 long-chain fatty acids from vegetable oil triglycerides. Its physical and chemical properties are similar to those of full-calorie fats, giving it the taste and texture of conventional fats.

Although olestra itself has 0 calories, it will be available only in blends with vegetable oil, resulting in a calorie and fat reduction. Technically, it can be used interchangeably with fat in a variety of foods such as cakes, pies, candy, margarine and ice cream–any usage that requires fat. It is formulated to take the place of fat in both hot and cold foods; it can be used in baking and frying.

Although olestra is not absorbed, the amount consumed from use of vegetable oil blends has no effect on the absorption of triglycerides, essential fatty acids and lipophilic drugs, such as oral contraceptives or fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K. Although serum levels of vitamin E were wthin the normal range, because a long-term study showed a small but consistent effect on vitamin E absorption, olestra will be supplemented with vitamin E. At high intake levels, olestra has the effect of decreasing plasma cholesterol, particularly low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

In 1987, the Procter & Gamble Company filed a Food Additive Petition with the FDA, requesting approval to use olestra 1) to replace up to 35% of the fat in shortening and vegetable oils for home use and 2) up to 75% of the fat used in deep-fat fryers in restaurants and in the commercial production of snack foods. The FDA petition includes reports of more than 100 laboratory and animal studies and 25 clinical investigations. It is not clear how long approval will take.

DDM. DDM (dialkyldihexadecylmalonate), another calorie-free fat substitute, is currently being developed by Frito-Lay, Inc. Animal studies began over a year ago and taste-testing with humans several months ago. Additional testing needs to be completed before the company petitions the FDa for approval.

EPG and TATCA. A chemical company has developed a calorie-free fat substitute called EPG (esterified propoxylated gylcerol) and a food company is working on TATCA (trialkoxytricarballylate), a nonhydrolyzable oil-like compound. Both products are in the very early stages of testing. Neither company has petitioned the FDA for approval, and it appears that their products will not be available for 5 to 10 years.

Calorie-Reduced Fat Substitutes. Calorie-reduced fat substitutes are made from hydrated protein or carbohydrates and can be digested and absorbed. Compared with fat, which has 9 cal/g, these fat substitutes provide from 1 to 4 cal/g. Some of these products can be used only in cold foods.

Simplesse[R]. Simplesse, a microparticulated protein (MPP), is a low-calorie, cholesterol-free fat substitute made from milk and/or egg-white protein. Microparticulation combines the standard food-processing techniques of cooking and blending. MPP derives it fat-like quantities from the microparticulation process. These particles (which are aggregates of the protein to make small round particles) are minute (greater than 50 billion per teaspoon). Since the tongue cannot perceive them individually, MPP tastes like fat and has the creamy, rich texture of fat. It is totally digested by the body and substitutes hydrated protein for fat. One gram of MPP (1 to 2 calories) can replace 1 g of fat (9 calories), resulting in a product that is lower in fat and calories but slightly higher in protein. The FDA has recently affirmed that Simplesse is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). It has been approved for use in frozen desserts only and will be available in 1990. It may potentially be used in dairy products (ice cream, butter, yogurt, cheese spread and sour cream) and oil-based products (salad dressing, margarine and mayonnaise).

Other Calorie-Reduced Products. The Kraft Company has also developed a calorie-reduced fat substitute made from milk and egg-white proteins that have undergone a technical process to change their physical–but not their chemical–properties. This product contributes a creamy, fat-like texture to foods and will be used in frozen dessert products.

N-Oil, a calorie-reduced fat substitute, is a partially hydrolyzed tapioca dextrin used primarily as a filler to add body to products such as cheese sauces, gravies, margarine and salad dressings. N-Oil does not require FDA approval because it is a GRAS substance.

Maltrin[R] is a calorie-reduced fat substitute that can take the place of fat in certain foods. It is a maltodextrin starch, found primarily in margarine spreads, soft-serve desserts and “lite” salad dressings.



A majority of high sales volume fast-food items are fried (french fries, chicken, fish and pies). At 75% fat replacement with olestra, the fat content of these foods would be reduced greatly. For example, consider if a regular serving of french fries contains 12 g of fat, 5 g of which is SF. If the french fries were cooked in a 75% olestra oil, their fat content would be reduced to only 3 g of total fat and 1.25 g of SF. Similarly, the fat and SF contents of other fried items such as fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets and onion rings would be substantially reduced (Table 1).

Calorie-reduced fat substitutes such as MPP will help reduce the fat content of non-fried fast foods, such as salad dressings, milkshakes and soft-serve desserts. Substituting the fat in 1 tablespoon of ranch-style dressing with MPP would decrease the fat content from 8 to 0.3 g. Table 1 illustrates how MPP would also reduce the fat in frozen desserts.


Fast food is a regular part of most Americans’ diets, with more than half (56.3%) consuming it on a weekly basis. Although it still contains a high percentage of fat and SF, fast-food operators have made several changes to make their fare healthier and more appealing to nutrition-conscious consumers. By using fat replacements, the fast-food industry and individuals will have the ability to lower the fat content of their food products with the potential of reducing the fat content of the American diet to 35% of calories or more.

Food manufacturers dedicated to developing lower fat foods and products that have the texture of conventional fats yet taste good are to be commended. Their next contribution will be listing nutrient information on product labels so that fast-food consumers can make informed nutrition choices. Changes such as these may help more Americans achieve a lower fat intake.


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Ms. Shields is an instructor of clinical nutrition at Rush University in Chicago.

Dr. Young is a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. She teaches and conducts research in the Division of Gastroenterology and Human Nutrition, Department of Medicine.

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