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Grilled Chicken = Healthier? Not in Fast Food World!

Take a look at this one-page document housed in the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Healthy Restaurant Eating” page, titled “Making Better Choices at Fast Food Restaurants” and co-sponsored by the American Heart Association, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and the Clinton Foundation.

It echoes much of the advice doled out in those all-too-familiar two-minute segments on morning news shows where viewers are assuaged that they CAN “eat right at fast food restaurants,” and America lets out a huge sigh of relief.

I particularly want to focus on one “healthy” tip in that document that I have read and heard for years and continue to come across (and one that, when I first started my nutrition studies, I thought seemed reasonable): “choose chicken”.

More specifically, as that document states, “when in doubt, order grilled, baked or broiled chicken — not fried or breaded.“  This tip operates on the assumption that a grilled chicken breast at a fast food restaurant is as simple as it sounds — a chicken breast with a little added salt and some spices.  Far from it.

(Sidenote: We won’t even get into the horrific living conditions these chickens endure, which are largely responsible for breeding both salmonella and Campylobacter;  I just want to focus on the nutritional angle of the recommendation for this specific post).

Take a look at the ingredients that comprise Burger King’s Tendergrill Chicken Filet:

“Caramel Color and Smoke Flavor Added Chicken Breast with Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning (Maltodextrin, Salt, Sugar, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Garlic Powder, Spices, Natural Flavors, Onion Powder, Modified Corn Starch, Chicken Fat, Chicken Powder, Chicken Broth, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, Citric Acid, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Dehydrated Garlic and Artificial Flavors.), Modified Corn Starch, Soybean Oil, Salt, Sodium Phosphates.  Glazed With: Water, Seasoning [Maltodextrin, Salt, Sugar, Methylcellulose, Autolyzed Yeasy Extract, Partially Hydrogenated Sunflower Oil, Modified Potato Starch, Fructose, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Dehydrated Garlic, Spices, Modified Corn Starch, Xanthan Gum, Natural Flavors, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, Chicken Fat, Caramel Color, Grill Flavor (from Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil), Chicken Powder, Chicken Broth, Turmeric, Smoke Flavor, Annatto Extract, and Artificial Flavors], Soybean Oil or Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil”

Did you catch the five separate mentions of trans-fat laden partially hydrogenated oils?  Caramel color, by the way, is one of the controversial ingredients in dark colas; so controversial, in fact, that the Center for Science in Public Interest urged the FDA consider a ban this past February, describing it as “contaminated with two cancer-causing chemicals.”

And, while this Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich may make Burger King’s “healthy” list because it is under 500 calories (it clocks in at 470), you’re still looking at 1,100 milligrams of sodium — equivalent to 103 Lay’s potato chips.  Burger King does not list fiber values on its website, but between the chicken patty (zero grams), the refined grain bun (I’ll be generous and give that 2 grams), the sole limp lettuce leaf (0 grams), and the smushed tomato slice (0.5 grams), you’re looking at a high-sodium, low-fiber meal.

To make matters worse, that high sodium isn’t even counter-balanced with the presence of potassium or other minerals (i.e.: magnesium, manganese, calcium) that play a crucial role in blood pressure regulation.  These 1,100 milligrams of sodium pretty much have a green light to run around and do as they please.

Besides, if the idea behind recommending chicken sandwiches is, as the document on the USDA page claims, to “cut down on calories, fat, and salt”, then this particular chicken sandwich is not the right answer, as it contain more calories, fat, and sodium than Burger King’s plain hamburger.

McDonald’s keeps their Premium Grilled Chicken Sandwich at 350 calories and 820 milligrams of sodium, but check out the ingredient list:

Boneless skinless chicken breasts filled with rib meat, water, seasoning (rice starch, salt, sugar, yeast extract, canola oil, onion powder, maltodextrin, chicken skin, paprika, flavor, sunflower oil, chicken, garlic powder, chicken fat, spices), sodium phosphates.  Prepared with Liquid Margarine: liquid soybean oil and hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil,salt, soy lecithin, mono and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbet, artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color).

More partially hydrogenated oils, and this time around, hydrogenated coconut oil.  Unlike unrefined coconut oil which provides heart-healthy benefits, hydrogenated coconut oil is a cardiovascular horror.  In fact, those who categorize coconut oil as “unhealthy” are referring to studies done with hydrogenated coconut oil, which is molecularly very different from its untouched state (JULY 18 UPDATE: I misread the list and saw ‘coconut oil’ where there wasn’t any; still, the preceding info is a good factoid). There’s also the omega-6 loaded cottonseed oil (thank you, crop subsidies).

Here is KFC’s Grilled Chicken:

“Fresh Chicken Marinated with Salt, Sodium Phosphate, and Monosodium Glutamate.  Seasons with: Maltodextrin, Salt, Bleached Wheat Flour, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil, Monosodium Glutamate, Spice, Palm Oil, Natural Flavor, Garlic Powder, Soy Sauce, Chicken Fat, Chicken Broth, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Extractives of Turmeric, Dehydrated Carrot, Onion Powder, and not more than 2% Each of Calcium Silicate and Silicon Dioxide Added as Anticaking Agents.”

Far from the chicken breast someone may grill in their backyard.

While Wendy’s, surprisingly, has the shortest ingredient list…

“Chicken breast, water, seasoning (sea salt, maltodextrin, natural flavors, yeast extract, onion powder, garlic powder, sugar, gum Arabic, dextrose), modified corn starch, sodium phosphates.”

…  we are still looking at one sandwich that packs in 1,110 milligrams of sodium and a measly two grams of fiber.

Millions of people frequent fast food restaurants, and will continue to do so; I understand the importance of operating within reality.  That said, presenting high-sodium lab-chicken products as “the healthy choice” is disingenuous.  I would like to see an article or TV segment convey a little more honesty and flat out say: “fast food chicken sandwiches are high in sodium and contain questionable ingredients, but they are lower in calories.”  We need to stop associating “lower calorie” with “healthy”.

Yes, a reduction in total calories can lead to weight loss, which intrinsically improves blood lipid profiles and blood pressure, but as Big Food loves to remind us, caloric reduction can be done solely with unhealthy foods (i.e.: “Taco Bell’s Drive-Thru Diet“).  Of course, if visits to fast food restaurants were sporadic, there would be no need for tips on “eating healthy” at them, in the same way that it would be silly to tell someone who eats an ice cream once a month to choose a low-fat flavor so they can save 50 calories.

Thank you to Michele Simon for the tidbit on chickens’ living conditions and its consequences on food safety issues.

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6 Comments

  1. Tita Barbosa said on June 4th, 2011

    Dios mio!! y pensar que las pocas veces que puedo ir a Mac Donalds pido eso pensando que es sano!! es increìble todo lo que uno desconoce acerca de lo que ingiere, y sobre todo como las compañìas no dan a conocer la verdad de lo que nos estàn suministrando. Gracias por dejarnoslo saber!!

  2. julie said on June 11th, 2011

    Yuck, that’s a long list of nasty ingredients. I don’t eat these things, but sometimes I eat a bit of fried chicken from the grocery, it’s likely nasty stuff as well. Chicken is creepy.

  3. Nan said on July 11th, 2011

    “More partially hydrogenated oils, and this time around, hydrogenated coconut oil. Unlike unrefined coconut oil which provides heart-healthy benefits, hydrogenated coconut oil is a cardiovascular horror. In fact, those who categorize coconut oil as “unhealthy” are referring to studies done with hydrogenated coconut oil, which is molecularly very different from its untouched state. There’s also the omega-6 loaded cottonseed oil (thank you, crop subsidies).”

    I must say that I’m lost…where does it say hydrogenated coconut oil in the ingredients list? Love your blog because it’s very informative but did you perhaps mean cottonseed oil? Or Soybean Oil?

  4. Andy Bellatti said on July 18th, 2011

    Good catch! No coconut oil on that list. Have updated that paragraph; thanks again.

  5. Cristy said on January 11th, 2012

    Great article! I agree that healthy should only be labeled to foods that are low in sodium, calories, but high in fiber, etc. So, if one were to have to choose something at at a fast food restaurant, then would a small hamburger be a smarter choice than a grilled chicken sandwich? Also, I question fast food sandwich places like Subway and Quiznos that have been labeled healthy. Isn’t the processed turkey and other meat loaded with sodium? Thanks!

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