Recessionary eating isn't always healthful eating, especially when it comes to the $1 value menus pushed by fast-food chains to keep sales growing through the economic slump, according to one health watchdog.
Jack in the Box's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger was ranked "the most unhealthful" value item available among the offerings of national fast-food chains, according to an analysis by dietitians with the nonprofit Cancer Project in Washington that is scheduled to be released today.
The $1 burger from San Diego-based Jack in the Box topped the ranking because of its hamburger patty and "hefty helpings of cheese and mayo-onion sauce," said Krista Haynes, Cancer Project staff dietitian.
The item contains 23 grams of fat, 860 milligrams of sodium, and bacon, a processed meat that Haynes said was associated with increased colorectal cancer risk.
Jack in the Box spokesman Brian Luscomb said the burger was a "great value for guests looking for a flavorful meal, but if you are looking for something else there are plenty of other great items on our value menu to choose from," including a chicken sandwich and a salad.
McDonald's new $1 McDouble sandwich and Irvine-based Taco Bell's 89-cent Cheesy Double Beef Burrito are among the other items singled out in the Cancer Project's report on the five least healthful fast-food value menu items.
Many of the selections from the inexpensive value menus are laden with the types of fats and processed and grilled meats that studies have linked to cancer and are among the least healthful items to eat, according to the group, which offers nutrition advice to cancer patients as well as information about nutrition and cancer.
"A lot of people underestimate the impact food can have on your health," Haynes said.
Grilled and processed meats are linked to a variety of cancers, said James Felton, associate director of the UC Davis Cancer Center.
"But with grilled meats, it is the details that count. The carcinogens are dependent on how you cook the food. The faster it is cooked and the higher the temperature, the more you are going to get," Felton said.
The popularity of these inexpensive selections has risen as the economy has deteriorated, said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic Inc. in Chicago, especially among economically disadvantaged and middle-income households.
"Two McDoubles for $2 is a pretty inexpensive way to fill up," said Tristano, who added that some of the fast-food deals were so attractive that even higher-income individuals were gobbling them up.
McDonald's declined to address any specific criticism of its McDouble sandwich.
But in a statement, Cynthia Goody, director of nutrition for Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's USA, said: "McDonald's has always been committed to providing a variety of wholesome, balanced menu options for all our customers. . . . Our wide variety of menu choices can be made into meal combinations that provide less than one-third of the government's daily recommendation for total fat, sodium and calories."
In the study, dietitians evaluated the nutritional data of each selection, including the item's calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and fiber, Haynes said. They then looked at carcinogenic factors such as grilling and processing, which the group said could increase the cancer risk associated with meat products. Finally they considered the addition of cheese and other high-fat dairy products, which Haynes said also played a role in cancer risk.
The Cancer Project noted that fast-food eating didn't have to be unhealthful.
The group said that at Burger King, a BK Veggie offers a low-fat, low-cholesterol option that costs only 90 cents more than the Whopper Jr. At Taco Bell, a bean burrito without cheese is just 99 cents and contains no cholesterol and very little fat.
After ranking the Jack in the Box burger as the worst choice, the group said that Taco Bell's Cheesy Double Beef Burrito was a close second. The burrito contains processed beef and nacho cheese sauce. It weighs in at 20 grams of fat, including 7 grams of saturated fat, as well as 460 calories and contains what the Cancer Project called "an astonishing 1,620 milligrams of sodium."
Burger King's Breakfast Sausage Biscuit ranked third on the list of five. The McDouble from McDonald's was fourth and Wendy's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger was fifth.