Knowledge for better food systems

Little change in fast food portion size and product formulation between 1996 and 2013

Two new papers from researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University have analysed the portion sizes and nutritional contents (including calories, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats) of popular menu items served at three national fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013. The researchers found that average calories, sodium, and saturated fat stayed relatively constant, at high levels and the only decline seen was of trans fat of fries that took place between 2000-2009. The products analysed were: French fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwich, and regular cola.

Calorie and sodium contents still remain high which the authors suggest show that emphasis needs to be shifted from portion size to additional factors such as total calories, number of items ordered, and menu choices.

"Restaurants can help consumers by downsizing portion sizes and reformulating their food to contain less of these over-consumed nutrients. This can be done, gradually, by cutting the amount of sodium, and using leaner cuts of meat and reduced-fat cheese," lead researcher Alice H. Lichtenstein said.



Excess intakes of energy, sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat are associated with increased risk for cardiometabolic syndrome. Trends in fast-food restaurant portion sizes can inform policy decisions. We examined the variability of popular food items in 3 fast-food restaurants in the United States by portion size during the past 18 years.


Items from 3 national fast-food chains were selected: French fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwich, and regular cola. Data on energy, sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat content were collated from 1996 through 2013 using an archival website. Time trends were assessed using simple linear regression models, using energy or a nutrient component as the dependent variable and the year as the independent variable.


For most items, energy content per serving differed among chain restaurants for all menu items (P ≤ .04); energy content of 56% of items decreased (β range, −0.1 to −5.8 kcal) and the content of 44% increased (β range, 0.6–10.6 kcal). For sodium, the content of 18% of the items significantly decreased (β range, −4.1 to −24.0 mg) and the content for 33% increased (β range, 1.9–29.6 mg). Absolute differences were modest. The saturated and trans fat content, post-2009, was modest for French fries. In 2013, the energy content of a large-sized bundled meal (cheeseburger, French fries, and regular cola) represented 65% to 80% of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, and sodium content represented 63% to 91% of the 2,300-mg-per-day recommendation and 97% to 139% of the 1,500-mg-per-day recommendation.


Findings suggest that efforts to promote reductions in energy, sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat intakes need to be shifted from emphasizing portion-size labels to additional factors such as total calories, frequency of eating, number of items ordered, menu choices, and energy-containing beverages.


Lorien E. Urban, Susan B. Roberts, Jamie L. Fierstein, Christine E. Gary, Alice H. Lichtenstein. Temporal Trends in Fast-Food Restaurant Energy, Sodium, Saturated Fat, andTransFat Content, United States, 1996–2013. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2014; 11 DOI: 10.5888/pcd11.140202

Read the full paper here and see further coverage here.

The second paper makes very similar points, and you can read the abstract and full paper here.  The citation is as follows:

Lorien E. Urban, Susan B. Roberts, Jamie L. Fierstein, Christine E. Gary, Alice H. Lichtenstein. Sodium, Saturated Fat, andTransFat Content Per 1,000 Kilocalories: Temporal Trends in Fast-Food Restaurants, United States, 2000–2013. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2014; 11 DOI:  10.5888/pcd11.140335

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North America is the northern subcontinent of the Americas covering about 16.5% of the Earth's land area. This large continent has a range of climates spanning Greenland’s permanent ice sheet and the dry deserts of Arizona. Both Canada and the USA are major food producers and some of the largest food exporters in the world. Industrial farms are the norm in North America, with high yields relative to other regions and only 2% of the population involved in agriculture.

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