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Cheap Eats for Hard Times: Findings

A Report from PCRM's Cancer Project
Winter 2008

Findings | Key Factors | Rating System/Detailed Results | Cheap and Healthful Options

As the stock market fluctuates and unemployment rates rise, more American consumers are pinching pennies and looking for bargains. Although the Value Menu items found at popular fast-food establishments seem like tempting choices in tough economic times, many of these cheap foods carry a hidden cost. The high-fat, high-cholesterol items that dominate Value Menus can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. To determine which Value Menu items pose the greatest risk to public health, dietitians with The Cancer Project analyzed foods served at five popular fast-food restaurant chains.

Findings

The Cancer Project found that most items advertised on Value Menus are high in fat, saturated fat, calories, sodium, and cholesterol. Many items also contain processed meats and grilled meats, which are linked to increased cancer risk. The five most unhealthful items were ranked from worst to least bad. Here are the five worst Value Menu items.

 

Rank

Worst Value Menu Item

Fast-Food Restaurant

1

Junior Bacon Cheeseburger

Jack in the Box

2

Cheesy Double Beef Burrito

Taco Bell

3

Breakfast Sausage Biscuit

Burger King

4

McDouble

McDonald’s

5

Junior Bacon Cheeseburger

Wendy’s

Background

Low prices have played a key role in fast-food marketing since Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955. But the extremely low prices found on Value Menus are a recent phenomenon. In 1989, Wendy's began offering items on its menu for $1. In the following decades, McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast-food chains followed suit.

Value Menus have helped increase the frequency of visits to fast-food restaurants. Fast food was long viewed by many consumers as a special treat. But some consumers today eat all three meals outside the home, and heavily marketed Value Menus have played a key role in that behavioral shift, which has greatly increased sales at many chains. Five years after the inception of McDonald’s Dollar Menu, for example, revenue had increased about $5 billion. However, these financial gains for fast-food companies have come at a significant cost to public health.

The main targets of Value Menu marketing efforts are teenagers, young adults, and minorities, according to a 2005 report from the Institute of Medicine on marketing of junk food. African-Americans and Hispanics, populations at higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, are core customers for these unhealthy offerings, which increase the danger of chronic diseases.

Review Process

In October 2008, dietitians with The Cancer Project reviewed Value Menus at five of the largest fast-food chains in the United States. Value Menus evaluated ranged from the traditional Dollar Menu at McDonald’s to Jack in the Box’s Jack’s Value Menu (prices start at 99 cents and vary by market), Taco Bell’s Why Pay More! Value Menu (prices range from 79 cents to 99 cents) and the Wendy’s and Burger King Value Menus (prices range from 99 cents to $1.79).

Dietitians obtained menu information by reviewing company Web sites, contacting restaurants by phone, and visiting restaurants near The Cancer Project’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Because some fast-food chains offer different Value Menu items at different prices in different regions of the country, the items compiled for this analysis represent only a sampling of these foods and may not be available at all locations. The Cancer Project then used company Web sites to obtain nutrition information and ingredients.

Dietitians evaluated each Value Menu item based on key nutritional data, including the item’s calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and fiber. Ratings are also based on carcinogenic criteria: These include preparation methods such as grilling and processing, which can increase the cancer risk associated with meat products, and the addition of cheese and other high-fat dairy products, which appear to play an important role in cancer risk.

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