John Weekes is an NZME News Service reporter based in Wellington.

Fast food fat-fest dismays experts

Butter chicken tops the readings, but it's still a favourite.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

You want fat with your order? Try butter chicken. That is by far the fattiest of six fast food samples tested by the Herald on Sunday this week.

A 100g serving from Shamiana Cuisine of India contained more than 7g of saturated fat. The whole meal would yield nearly 40g of saturated fat. Tests were carried out on local favourites including burger combos, fish and chips, pizza and a fried chicken combo.

Scientists at New Zealand Laboratory Services returned results tallying up fat, salt, calorie, sugar, protein and carbohydrate levels in each meal. And in case you're a fan of leftovers, the lab also found ratings for 100g servings.

Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull said the study showed stereotypical fast-food joints weren't the only ones plying fatty food. The saturated fat readings in the butter chicken were extraordinary, she said.

Shamiana manager Satish Shetty said his customers had a range of foods to choose from - and 80 per cent chose butter chicken.

"People cannot live without butter chicken. We buy almost nine tonnes of chicken every week."

Shetty said cream was probably responsible for the high saturated fat content. "If you use the low-fat cream, people just don't like that."

The nutritionists said there were three main items to consider when assessing food's impact on health.

"Energy, saturated fat and sodium drive the chronic diseases - heart disease, diabetes, weight gain," Auckland District Health Board nutritionist Kate Sledden said.

On the calorie or energy count, Pizza Hut's classic Italian pizza was just ahead of the McDonald's Big Mac combo by a bite. But for the whole meal, neither could match the new kid on the block - the Carls Jr Thickburger combo with 5342.6kj.

Age, sex and weight all affect daily energy requirements but the Thickburger combo contained nearly half the daily energy intake for most adults.

The classic Italian pizza from Pizza Hut was saltiest by serving but Carls Jr's Thickburger combo had more sodium.

"At a population level, salt is important," Sledden said. "Sodium is linked to high blood pressure which is linked to cardiovascular disease."

At least 1500 deaths in New Zealand were attributed each year to high blood pressure.

Half the meals tested had sodium levels above the upper recommended limit of 2300mg.

New Zealand's unhealthiest, fattiest meals were probably found at independent fast food outlets in South Auckland, Sledden said. But those stores had wildly varying portion sizes.

Turnbull said frequent fast food diners were also at risk of missing healthy food.

"If you're having this, what are you not having? You're not having fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish, nuts or seeds," she said.

The meals tested were priced from $8.50 to $11.90.

Aggressive expansion

Fast-food firms are in an expansive mood, despite earthquakes, a long recession and publicity about fat levels in their food.

McDonald's will open four new outlets in Christchurch, Mt Roskill, Hamilton and Havelock North this year.

"It's an incredibly aggressive market at the moment," McDonald's spokesman Simon Kenny said.

Another American burger chain, Carls Jr, has opened stores in two of Auckland's poorest suburbs, in just the same way as McDonald's arrived with a store in low-income Porirua in 1976. The chain, the fifth biggest in the United States, planned another 30 outlets nationwide.

Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King also had expansion plans.

- Herald on Sunday

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