Research suggests gradual changes to product formulations.

BOSTON — Excluding french fries, product reformulation within three fast-food chains from 2000-2013 did little to reduce intake of sodium and saturated fat, according to a study appearing in the December issue of Preventing Chronic Disease.

Researchers from Tufts Univ. in Boston analyzed the nutrient content of 2-oz. cheeseburgers, 4-oz. cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and large orders of french fries. They obtained data for the amount of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat per 1,000 calories.

The levels of saturated fat and trans fat in french fries declined sharply over the 14 years. After a shift away from the use of partially hydrogenated oils, which cause artificial trans fat, between 2006-09, the trans fat content of french fries per 1,000 calories declined to undetectable levels.

After 2009, cheeseburgers contributed the most trans fat. The trans fat content in the cheeseburgers likely was the result of naturally occurring ruminant fat, the researchers said. Trans-fat reduction in cheeseburgers thus likely is possible only through the use of leaner ground beef and reduced fat cheese.

During the 14-year period sodium content remained high for french fries among all three chains although the range narrowed to 700 to 1,420 mg of sodium per 1,000 calories in 2013 from 316 to 2,000 mg per 1,000 calories in 2000. Sodium content in french fries remained stable in one fast-food chain, declined in a second chain and rose in the third chain.

Cheeseburgers contributed the most saturated fat, or about 18 grams to 25 grams per 1,000 calories. Levels changed little over the 14-year period for saturated fat per 1,000 calories in cheeseburgers.
The researchers acknowledged clientele of fast-food restaurants expect food to be consistent from visit to visit, which may prove a challenge to product reformulation. Gradual changes may help overcome the challenge.

“An alternate approach to making foods from fast-food restaurants more healthful is to introduce new items for which expectations have yet to develop,” the researchers said. “These new items could give consumers a range of options, which could help them meet dietary recommendations if they consistently varied their choices among these options.”

Alice Lichtenstein, D. Sc., senior scientist and director for the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts Univ., was the corresponding author for the study. She is also on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The study was supported by the US Department of Agriculture under agreements with Tufts Univ.