I heard the fast food slogan on the television from the corner of my ear, the way you do when you’ve listened to something so often it becomes like the woodwork; you know there’s a pattern in the grain, but you’ve stopped noticing it. The commercial was a jingle familiar to my subconscious, a slogan I’ve heard a thousand times before on television or the radio.
This time, however, I heard something added to the end of the commercial.
“What?” My ears perked up. “Who is a liar?”
He jabbed his index finger in the air towards the television. “They are. Because there’s no way that sandwich could be 640 calories, 80 grams of cholesterol, and 700 milligrams of sodium.”
The television displayed an enormous Reuben sandwich. A Reuben sandwich consists of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island or Russian dressing, all stacked between two slices of rye bread. And it’s not a Reuben without a hefty dill pickle on the side.
“If I made that sandwich at home, it would easily top 120 milligrams of cholesterol, and the sodium! Way over the daily requirements.”
The images dancing across our television screen portrayed a Reuben sandwich offered by a national fast food chain. An inch of meat nestled between a thick layer of melting cheese and two slabs of marbled rye bread. Thousand Island dressing dripped down the sides of the meat. My mouth watered at the sight of it — and I loathe corned beef.
But it just looks so good…
Did I mention I follow a high nutrient, whole foods, plant-based diet — and corned beef on rye dripping with Thousand Island dressing is not on the menu?
Oh my gosh, it looks so good…
“There is absolutely no way that this sandwich, as shown on television, has only 80 milligrams of cholesterol,” said my companion, who is watching his cholesterol, sodium, and calories very carefully. “Okay, their website says over 700 milligrams of sodium; that’s probably true. But 680 calories? Who are they kidding?”
“Just for the sandwich?”
“Just for the sandwich,” he confirmed, clicking through to the menu on the fast food website. “Not counting a large serving of fries and a 32-ounce soft drink.”
We stared for a while at the nutritional data information on the company’s website. We wondered: does anyone look at it? If they did, how could they eat this sandwich in good conscience when the sandwich alone pushed the diet past the daily recommended sodium intake?
But it looks so good…
How did that luscious looking sandwich dancing on my television screen contain just 80 milligrams of cholesterol? It was impossible, and I like to investigate impossible things companies try to convince the public are possible.
Therefore, I began my quest to explore a tale of two sandwiches, the one portrayed on the big screen and the potential sandwich assembled in my own kitchen, and why mine looked small and contained more calories, sodium, and cholesterol than the one on the big screen.
The tale took me into the environs of the corporate franchise, the fast food kitchen, the FDA, and the testing laboratory. It included an exploration of history, fads, and finally, the psychology of advertising. And finally, it left me with one inescapable conclusion about the realities of food, dining and nutrition.
The Nutritional Data Label
Not so long ago, no one cared much about the nutritional information on food packaging. That’s because food wasn’t packaged. It was grown, harvested, picked, slaughtered, baked, canned, and cooked at home, from ingredients easily recognizable by even die-hard city folks who never stepped foot on a farm.
Sweetened, condensed milk became popular in the late 1800s and used during times of rationing, such as in World War I and II, creating a taste for the easy to use, tasty and portable tinned dessert base. By the 1950s, television dinners arrived on the scene; packaged snack foods such as Doritos came along not long after. And by the 1960s, Americans had developed a taste for the easy, convenient and relatively inexpensive packaged foods.
The FDA, concerned about the growing number of packaged food products with mystery ingredients, introduced the first food label requirements in 1973. The original food labels required information about the protein, carbohydrates and fat content of packaged foods. The RDA of certain vitamins deemed at the time as ‘essential,’ such as A and C, also appeared on food labels. Missing from the labels of the time: sodium.
The 1980s brought us great music, outlandish fashion, and a fitness craze that continues to this day. The public responded by clamoring for more information about the ingredients in their foods. The growing health and fitness craze, combined with advances in the science of nutrition, made the existing food label requirements sorely out of step with the realities of what the public wanted and what scientists knew. By the 1990s, the FDA revised its requirements, and the modern food label was born.
Since then, there have been subsequent updates whenever new information was deemed important for the general public. Breaking down the general category of ‘fat’ into saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats provides one such example of an update based on the latest scientific thinking.
But who comes up with the numbers printed ON the labels and, subsequently, published on sites like the fast food website we consulted during our debate about the Reuben sandwich shown on television?
This was my big question. I have books in my house that include nutritional information in foods like bananas, lettuce, and chicken. How did these basic facts become known?
Somewhere along the line, a standard database was created with everyday foods like my bananas and lettuce. Of course, there will be variations among a bunch of bananas or a field of lettuce. The soil in which they are grown, the amount of time in shipping, the variety of lettuce, etc. all change the nutritional components of the food. Like an intricate dance, the steps vary with the tempo.
The label information and the information provided by fast food restaurants are, in fact, generated by scientists working at commercial food laboratories worldwide. These laboratories analyze calories and nutrients in packaged foods, restaurant meals, and individual foods. The data printed on food labels must meet FDA standards guiding laboratory testing and accuracy.
The final analysis, however, depends on the test sandwich(es) offered. My big question: was the sandwich shown on television, with its hefty pile of corned beef, melting cheese, and dripping dressing, an adequate match for what a diner could expect from the restaurant? And if so, how in the world did it come in at only 80 milligrams of cholesterol? What magic did they use and how can the average home cook mimic it?
Sandwiches Are Like Snowflakes: No Two Are Alike. Unless You Buy It at a Fast Food Place.
People eat at fast food restaurants because the food is fast, cheap, and tastes good — and familiar. Consistent assembly of same ingredients creates a familiar-tasting product. That’s how you can tell a Mc Donald’s Big Mac from a Burger King Whopper, and why a Big Mac purchased in New York City tastes the same as a Big Mac bought in Topeka, Kansas.
According to The Daily Meal, menu items at fast food restaurants arrive at each franchise with prepacked ingredients, detailed instructions, and photographs demonstrating how the sandwich should be assembled. All of the ingredients arrive from a central warehouse, ready to slap together into your Reuben or double cheeseburger. A fast food sandwich bears more a resemblance to a Model T Ford fresh off the assembly line than to a sandwich sitting on my kitchen table waiting for my hungry spouse. Arby’s, Subway or another chain restaurant assembles sandwiches with precisely measured, pre-cut ingredients. I concoct my sandwiches with what’s in my refrigerator at the moment, and that’s based on what’s on sale at the supermarket.
It’s not only about consistency for these chains. It’s also about profits.
A chain restaurant selling hamburgers must ensure that each burger has precise amounts of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and secret sauce not just to please the palate of the weary traveler who wants to refuel and go with a familiar dinner option. Fast food restaurant owners demand that each sandwich is made according to the precise specifications provided by the corporate office to ensure they meet their profit goals. If the corporate office lists the price of their famous hamburger nationwide at $4.99, then the ingredients must cost a set amount to ensure a fixed profit margin per burger sold. Otherwise, the restaurant owner loses money, especially if the parent corporation runs a nationwide mass media promotion for the $4.99 hamburger, Reuben, or other meal. If the meal isn’t assembled precisely according to corporate recipes and instructions, using corporate packaged ingredients, the restaurant owner loses money.
This ensures an incentive from every angle to keep fast food meals consistent and reliable. Customers like it; restaurant owners need it; corporate demands it.
Can I trust the nutrition data available on the restaurant chain’s website? Is it accurate? How do I know?
Restaurants, I learn, are also required to list the nutritional information for their meals. Fast food franchises do so for consumer convenience and to meet regulations. Therefore, the franchise chain had to have the meal tested at an independent laboratory. The data available on their website is as reliable as the data on my box of cereal, can of soup, or frozen dinner. There’s probably a margin of error, but it’s reasonably close and about as trustworthy as any nutrition information available.
Okay, fine. I can trust the nutrition information as much as I can believe any other nutrition label.
I’m still left with my original question.
Which sandwich was true? Which lied?
The Lying Sandwich
Or rather, sandwich advertisements lie.
Have you ever noticed that a sandwich purchased from a fast food restaurant looks nothing like it does in the advertisement?
The ads feature steaming sandwiches, fizzing drinks, crisp French fries, bacon, perfectly crisped and waving out from under the bun, thick cheese melting over a gleaming burger.
Then you unwrap your fast food sandwich, and it’s pitiful. A hockey puck, overcooked beef patty on a sodden bun with one slice of pale tomato and a limp lettuce leaf. The bacon leans drunkenly over the bun and ketchup soaks into the bread.
Reality always shatters the illusion. The burger you see in person is like a celebrity without makeup; it’s a naked burger. Food stylists go to a lot of trouble to make you salivate over a bacon cheeseburger. According to Mashed tricks they use include undercooking the beef patty and weaving bacon strips over glass tubes to get them perfectly crinkled. The grill marks are painted on with shoe polish and antacids are chucked into the cola to make it fizzy and fun.
Since an undercooked hamburger can give you food poisoning, fast food restaurants cannot provide an identical meal to that gleaming icon on television. It’s no different than a model wearing layers of makeup for a perfect complexion. If you meet her in person on her way to the photo shoot with a clean face, you notice the zits, the uneven pigmentation. Once inside the studio, with the magic of makeup and the right lighting, she’s flawless. Your burger wears makeup to get ready for its closeup.
The hamburgers aren’t to blame, then. It’s those tricky advertising people who make the product desirable. Let’s blame them for enticing us into fast food restaurants! Labels be damned. It’s not the labels making us fat, it’s the advertisers’ fault. They’re preying on our basic instincts to make us buy their fattening sandwiches!
Oh, wait. That’s their job.
So who is to blame? Is there a way out from making a whole food, plant-based eater craves a Reuben sandwich she doesn’t even like?
A Way Out from Cravings
Back in my living room, my companion and I argued and calculated, figured and discussed, but could not agree on the calories, sodium, and cholesterol found in that Reuben sandwich gleaming on the television screen.
We both have a solid grasp of science, mathematics, and psychology so we could see through how our tastebuds and desires were manipulated by the ads. We could calculate the calories, sodium, and cholesterol in both the sandwich and our daily intake; we could make informed decisions, based on the latest scientific evidence and our doctor’s recommendation, on what to eat for health.
Most people sit at work and feel their stomachs growling and hop into their cars to find a fast food joint with the shortest drive-through line. Or they head to the local diner, restaurant, or cafeteria, pick a meal from a menu and enjoy. They rarely, if ever, consult nutritional labels, write down their daily intakes, or log them into apps. They eat, enjoy, and go on with their days…then wonder why they are fat, tired, and unhealthy.
If food like the Reuben sandwich under discussion was only an occasional treat, it wouldn’t be so bad. Americans, however, love to eat out. Six out of 10 Americans eat one or more meals out each week. Gallup notes that younger people are more likely to frequent restaurants.
For those seeking to lose weight or improve their health, eating out can be tricky. Without adequate knowledge, our choices are governed by taste, convenience, and cost. We are easily manipulated by advertising that plays upon our physical and emotional response to images.
Even with knowledge, it’s easy to succumb to the lure of the advertisers. Companies run ads because they work.
A healthy diet doesn’t require us to quit our day jobs, move to a homestead, and grow our own organic food. Simply bringing your own food, prepared from known ingredients in your kitchen, and eating real food — “what your grandmother would recognize as food” — is a big step in the right direction.
Can we trust the nutrition data labels? Probably. Can we believe fast food advertising? Probably not.
Real food, whole food, isn’t usually advertised with wax added or shoe polish used to give it an exceptional luster. Pick an apple from a tree, and it doesn’t come with a nutrition label. But food developed in a chain restaurant’s test kitchen requires laboratory-derived food labels.
Although we can argue about whether or not that Reuben sandwich contained 80 milligrams of cholesterol or 800, it’s still not a healthy option for the average person. An occasional treat, perhaps, but a lunchtime staple? Not if you value your life.