Healthful fast food is primarily a question of demand


It's fascinating to watch the marketplace adjust to consumer demands for food and food-related products that help us all choose healthier diets.

Manufacturers will produce whatever we will buy, and they stop producing what we say we want if we don't buy it. Money talks. Lip service is silent.

Several years ago, Wendy's jumped right on the "whole grain" bandwagon and began offering a whole wheat hamburger bun. Few requested it, so now it's gone. Baked potatoes are disappearing, too.

Vigilance is crucial, though. It's important to know what you really want.

The evolution of fast-food chicken is a case in point.

When the anti-beef campaigns began a number of years ago, fast food shops began producing chicken nuggets and patties. Lots of people thought this was a big improvement until they discovered that six nuggets contain 15 grams of fat -- hardly a fat bargain when compared to a small hamburger, which contains only 9 grams of fat!

Then came chicken breast filet, a decided improvement, down to 11 grams of fat per filet. Of course, when you get it on a sandwich, fat climbs to 19 grams because of the mayo. A chicken breast filet club escalates to 25 grams of fat because of mayo and bacon.

Now comes grilled chicken filet, being sold by Hardee's and Wendy's, and test-marketed by McDonald's, at only 3 grams of fat. That's progress! Unless you choose the Wendy's sandwich, which contains 13 grams of fat.

What's scary about that sandwich is that the fat comes from an unlikely sounding source: honey mustard sauce. Since neither honey nor mustard contains any fat, you might feel safe. But the main ingredient is soybean oil. The sauce also contains whole eggs.

If you're looking for good nutrition, ignore advertising and go for the facts.

And that's easy now, because the fast food shops are giving in to the pressure to provide nutrition information about the food you buy.

But you have to get it, which is pretty easy now since it's available on site in many cases. Then you have to read it. Most important, you have to understand it.

If you're trying to meet the current fat guidelines (no more than 30 percent of calories form fat) established by the major health organizations, then you need to know this: It's not necessary to cut out all fat. A typical woman should limit fat to about 66 grams a day. A man can eat about 100 grams of fat a day.

Given those limits, it's easy to see that a chicken club sandwich at 25 grams of fat will fit your limits only if you make a lot of other low-fat choices each day.

But help is on the way. Along with salad bars and side salads with low-fat dressing, McDonald's is now test-marketing packets of celery sticks and carrot sticks to help fill you up and provide the "crunch" of the beloved, high-fat french fries.

But they'll sell them only if you buy them.

*Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

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