Fast food companies ignoring nutrition fuels public health crisis: study

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Water should be the default drink for kids’ fast food meals while kilojoules in meal deals should be reduced, according to Deakin researchers.

A first-of-its-kind evaluation of the nutrition policies of Australia’s biggest takeaway outlets found the majority did not publicly identify health or nutrition as a focus area.

The latest of a series of reports from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre, “Inside our Quick Service Restaurants”, ranks Australia’s 11 biggest fast food companies, not by the healthiness of specific products but according to their policies and commitments to address obesity and population nutrition issues.

Scores range from first-placed Subway on 48 out of 100 to bottom-placed Domino’s Pizza on three out of 100, with a company average of just 27.

Just two companies – Subway and Nando’s – provided details of their internal nutrition policies when approached by researchers. Public commitments were scarce, mostly limited to providing product nutrition information on company websites, and kilojoule labelling on in-store menus, which is already mandatory in many states.

This is the first time Australia’s fast food outlets have been put under the microscope in this way, following the release of similar reports on supermarkets and food and beverage manufacturers earlier this this.

The report’s lead author, Associate Professor Gary Sacks, said far from an occasional treat, takeaway food was making up an increasing proportion of the average Australian’s diet.

“The average Australian household spends almost 32 per cent of its food budget on takeaway and eating out, and the average fast food meal provides up to half of an adult’s daily energy requirements,” he said.

“Unhealthy diets are creating a public health crisis in Australia. Every part of our community, including the fast food sector, needs to do their part in making the healthy choice the easy choice for all Australians.”
Associate Professor Gary Sacks Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre

“Inside our Quick Service Restaurants” sets out a number of priorities for fast food companies, including:

  • Commit to make healthier meal components, such as water and side salads or fresh fruit, the default option, particularly as part of children’s meals
  • Set specific targets to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and saturated fat in menu items, and reduce the kilojoule content and portion size of meals
  • Reduce the number of price discounts and value deals for unhealthy options, and ensure healthier options are priced similarly to less healthy equivalents
  • Restrict advertising of unhealthy products at times when large numbers of children are exposed, including cutting down on sponsorship of community and sporting events popular with families

Associate Professor Sacks said some fast food companies had introduced healthy sides or drink options for their meals, including children’s meals, but the default option was often still sugary drinks and fried food.

“There’s a real opportunity for fast food companies to help address the problem by introducing policies that make healthier choices, like water and fruit or salad, the automatic option for kids’ meals,” he said.

Associate Professor Sacks said it was concerning to see fast food outlets’ heavy price promotions for products extremely high in salt, sugar and fat.

“The majority of items we see heavily promoted are unhealthy ones, like $1 frozen cokes, which clock in at more than 15 teaspoons of sugar, or two-for-one whoppers, which each contain a whopping 40 grams of fat,” he said.

“In contrast, healthier options are typically priced much higher and are rarely offered as part of special deals.

“It’s all about making the healthy option the easy option, and that means making it more affordable too.”

The data compiled in the report was gathered from publicly available information (collected up to the end of 2017) as well as company policy information provided by company representatives. It was then assessed using the ‘Business Impact Assessment – Obesity and population nutrition tool’ developed by INFORMAS, a global network of public health researchers that monitors food environments worldwide.

The tool considers company policies and commitments across six key domains related to obesity prevention and nutrition: corporate strategy, product formulation, nutrition labelling, promotion to children and adolescents, product accessibility, and relationships with external groups. It does not take into account the nutritional content or healthiness of specific products.

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Published by Deakin Research on 28 May 2018

Centre for Population Health Research

The Centre for Population Health Research (CPHR) contributes to health improvements for Australian and global populations through its extensive and diverse portfolio of research activities in public health, implementation, knowledge translation and advocacy, training and expert advisory services.