They may seem relatively harmless, but Ronald, Wendy, and that Burger King guy are all members of an underground society of fast food owners—a club with more secrets than the U.S government and more tricks up its sleeve than Houdini. And it's not just their secret sauce recipes that are, well, secret. These shady characters are playing countless tricks on their customers and harboring classified intel on their food, serveware, and restaurants. Why's everything so hush-hush? Well, because most of their covert moves are leaving their patrons sick, fat, and broke.
The good news: Protecting your waistline and wallet doesn't require ditching the burgers, sandwiches, and fries you hate to love. Once you've learned the fast food industries' trade secrets, it's easy to place healthier orders, lose weight, and save your hard-earned dollars. Read on for all of the must-know intel! And while you've got restaurant grub on the brain, don't miss our exclusive report, The #1 Worst Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants.
IT CAN MAKE YOU SAD
Strange but true: Even if you generally eat a healthy diet, consuming fast food can increase your risk for depression, according to a Public Health Nutrition study of nearly 9,000 participants. In fact, those who eat greasy burgers, hot dogs, and fries are 51 percent more likely to develop depression that those who don't indulge. Thankfully for those who only hit up the drive through once in awhile, the researchers observed a dose-response relationship between the blues and the burgers. "The more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression," explains Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, lead author of the study. The takeaway here: Try to limit your fast food habit to once or twice per month at the very most. Or better yet, stick to one of these healthy fast food restaurants when you need to grab grub on the run.
MOST OF US HAVE NO IDEA HOW CALORIC IT IS
If you're an avid Eat This, Not That! reader, you probably have a pretty good idea how many calories are in your go-to fast food order. But the majority of folks aren't as knowledgeable, according to a Harvard Medical School report. To come to this finding, researchers asked 1,877 adults, 330 school age children and 1,178 adolescents dining at Burger King, Subway, Wendy's, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's how caloric they thought their meals were. Compared with the actual figures, participants underestimated their meal's calorie content by 175 calories, 259 calories, and 175 calories, respectively. If the calorie information is printed on the menu, give it a peek and look for something with 500 calories or less. (At BK that's might mean ordering a Whopper Jr. Sandwich, a side salad with half a dressing packet and a water.)
JUST LIVING NEAR IT CAN MAKE YOU HEAVIER
Your good ole pal Ronald put his restaurant by your house on purpose: he wants you, bad. And that's because one of the strongest influences on fast food consumption is ease of access. Basically, if we see it and can easily get it, we will eat it. In fact, having a fast food restaurant within 0.10 miles of a school increases the probability of obesity among students by 5.2 percent, according to a joint study conducted by Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley. For pregnant women, having a restaurant within 0.50 miles increases the probability of gaining over 44 pounds during pregnancy by 2.5 percent. (Experts typically recommend that women with a healthy BMI gain no more than 25 to 35 pounds after becoming pregnant.) To maintain your trim figure, keep healthy, grab-and-go snacks in your car or bag. If you're prepared with your own healthy fare, you'll be less apt to give in to temptation when your tummy starts to rumble. These 25 Eat This!-Approved Snacks are all solid options.
IT WASN'T A THING 'TIL THE 1920's
Until the early 1920's burgers were typically thought of as fare reserved for fairs, circuses, and lunch carts; a low-quality meal made from slaughterhouse scraps and nearly spoiled meat. But Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram, the creators of White Castle, set out to change the public's perception when they opened their first location in Wichita, Kansas. They set up the restaurant so that customers could see the food being prepared and painted the building white to evoke the perception of cleanliness. And speaking of clean eating, be sure to keep some of these 15 New Healthy Frozen Foods that Make Clean Eating a Breeze on hand so you're always prepared with healthy eats—even when you're short on time.
THE HEALTHY-SOUNDING STUFF IS THE WORST
While there are some exceptions to the rule, more often than not in fast food land, the healthy sounding stuff is worse for you than the items that seem like they'd do the most damage. Sbarro's "Broccoli, Spinach & Tomato Pan Pizza"—that's gotta be safe, right? Not so much. Two slices will cost you 1,280 calories, 60 grams of fat and 2,600 milligrams of blood-pressure-spiking sodium. McDonald's Fruit and Maple Oatmeal, another dish with a massive health halo, packs a whopping 32 grams of sugar. That's more than you get in a bag of M&Ms. If you decide to put spoon to mouth, this healthy sounding breakfast food will start your day with a sugar high and a certain crash. And speaking of the sweet stuff, find out what it's doing to your body in our exclusive report, What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Sugar.
KENTUCKY EATS THE MOST OF IT
Kentucky may be called The Bluegrass State, but maybe they should change their nickname to The
Fast Food State. With more than four establishments per 10,000 residents, they have more greasy spoon joints than anywhere else in America! (Considering they are home to Papa John's International Inc. and Yum! Brands Incorporated, the company that owns fast food giants Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, we can't say we're totally shocked.) Consequently, Kentucky also has the twelfth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to the non-profit organization Trust for America's Health. A few possible reasons why there's a connection: Not only is it harder to resist temptation when there's fast food all around, it also drives down the cost, making it even more accessible and attractive, say researchers.
SOME OF IT HAS SILLY PUTTY IN IT
What do Ronald's McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish have in common with Chick-fil-A's Spicy Chicken Sandwich Deluxe? They all contain dimethylpolysiloxane, a type of silicone used in cosmetics, aquarium sealant, and, you guessed it, Silly Putty. Uh, yum? It doesn't pose any major health risks, but it's a bit unsettling nonetheless. To discover more strange things lurking in your food, check out our report, The 40 Most Horrifying Items Found in Food.
IT'S NOT CHEAP
Contrary to conventional thought, eating dinner at a fast food chain isn't cheap. In fact, it costs about $30 for a family of four to have dinner at their local McDonald's! On the flip side, for just $12 you could easily buy a pound of millet, ($1.99) a pound of ground turkey ($5.99), and a bag or two of frozen veggies ($2.00-$4.00) and cook up a big bowl of yum and nutrition. For even more ways to save dough on your groceries, check out these 17 Simple Swaps That Save $255 a Month on Groceries!
RONALD IS MR. POPULAR
Get this: According to consumer behavior data from location analytics firm Placed, McDonald's is the most-visited fast food restaurant in America U.S.! Yes, seriously! People may talk smack about the chain on the reg, but that's just because it's so damn popular. (Haters gonna hate!) Subway steals the number two slot, with 2 in 5, or 40 percent of Americans visiting the chain in April of 2013 alone!
THE FLAME-GRILLED FLAVOR IS FAKE
Have you ever wondered how your favorite burgers and chicken sandwiches get that fresh-off-the-fire taste even though they're frozen and cooked indoors? We have. And as it turns out, that smokey flavor is isn't legit. (Are you really shocked, though?) When a fast food item contains something called "natural smoke flavor" it likely was created by Red Arrow Products Company, a commercial flavor firm. To create the flavor, the company burns wood, captures the flavor of the smoke in water, bottles it and sells it to places like Burger Kingand Wendy's. We bet that burger seems a little less appetizing now, right?
THEY SERVE NUTRITIONIST-APPROVED MEALS
"Not only do I eat guilt-free at McDonald's, I think they get a bad rap all too often," says Christine M. Palumbo, a Chicago-area registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant. Other diet experts concur. We've sat down with countless experts and asked them when they order at places like Burger King, Mickey D's, Panera, Wendy's, and Starbucks and they never come up short. It's all about navigating the menus with some knowledge on your side. To ensure you know everything you need to know to eat fries without expanding your waistline, check out our exclusive report, How to Eat Fast Food—Without Gaining Weight!
THEY DECORATE TO MAKE YOU CRAVE
Have you noticed that a lot of fast food chains use the same colors on their logos and inside their restaurants? That's no coincidence. Pizza Hut, In-N-Out Burger, Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King—just to name a few—all use yellow and red in their logos. These hues have been proven to grab consumers' attention, stimulate appetite, increase the speed in which we eat and make us crave all things convenience—including fast food, say University of Rochester scholars. To keep your appetite in check, order from the drive-thru window and enjoy your food at home. Nowhere near your house? If the weather is nice, eat outside the restaurant at a picnic table or take your meal to a nearby park.
THEY USE WORDS AGAINST YOU
A lot of health-minded folks go into fast food joints with the best of intentions but somehow end up leaving with a bacon cheeseburger and a soggy order of fries. Here's why it keeps happening: Food marketers tend to use descriptive phrases on their menus and in-store ads such as "Finger lickin' good" and "hot n' juicy" to boost the craveability of menu items they're hoping to sell. (The only problem is, they're not typically pushing the healthy stuff. Those dishes are less apt to get you hooked.) In fact, customers are 27 percent more likely to order an item if it's described with yummy-sounding adjectives, say Cornell University researchers. The same group of scholars also found that certain menu design elements such as fancy fonts, colors, and graphics tend to draw the eyes toward specific items and can sway customers' orders. Next time you hit up a fast food joint, your best bet is to decide on an order (preferably one of these 20 healthiest fast food orders) before you arrive and stick to your guns when you get up to the counter—no matter how "finger lickin' good" those ribs may sound.
Chicken McNuggets are constantly under fire in the media, whether it's because of pink slime claims, having more than 40 ingredients, or because they, uh, melt? Former McDonald's employee and Reddit user DFunkatron explained, "I accidentally left a whole bag of about 100 chicken nuggets out on a counter for way too long. They melted. Into a pool of liquid." Wondering why? It could be because the finely-ground chicken meat is combined with a water-based marinade of sodium phosphates, food starches, dextrose, citric acid, autolyzed yeast extract (i.e. appetite-increasing MSG), and natural flavoring just to keep it bound together. No wonder pre-fry, defrosted nuggets melt—other than chicken, they're mostly made up of additive water. Curious what other scary things are lurking in your nuggets? Check out our exclusive report, Every Fast Food Nugget—Ranked!!
THE KID'S MEALS ARE WEIGHT-LOSS FRIENDLY
The Happy Meal isn't just for kids anymore. According to a research team of scientists from the Universities of Arizona and of Southern California, when a small incentive is offered with a meal, as is the case with just about every fast food kids meal, people are motivated to limit their portion size. As it turns out, the combination of a half-sized portion and a non-food gift stimulates the same part of the brain—the area responsible for reward, desire, and motivation—as the full-sized portion alone. The study also discovered that, regardless of hunger, most people will choose a half-sized portion of food if it's paired with a toy or monetary prize rather than a full-sized portion at the same price. Even though they ate less, people who chose the incentive option tended not to compensate for the reduced portion by eating more calories later in the day. So, if you're looking to shed some pounds, opt for the Happy Meal: you'll get to keep your skinny jeans and have a new toy! For more sacrifice-free ways to lean out, check out these 50 Best-Ever Weight Loss Tips!
EVEN THE SALADS HAVE CHEMICALS
These days, many fast food chains offer salads. And if solely look at things like calories, fat, and sodium, they're usually a step in the right direction. But when it comes to the quality of the ingredients in the salad, they're not must better than the stuff that's infused with silly putty. Many chains dust their salads with propylene glycol, a chemical that helps keep lettuce leaves crisp. It's considered safe for consumption—but it's also be found in antifreeze and sexual lubricants. In our eyes, that's the opposite of appetizing and wholesome.
"MEDIUM" IS ACTUALLY A LARGE
Duke University researchers discovered that chains often encourage customers to buy larger sodas by increasing the number of ounces in all their sodas. That's because people subconsciously pick the middle option, so the larger the "medium," the more they can charge for it—those sneaky devils! Consider this just one more reason to stick to water and avoid the chemical-spiked sugar water altogether.
THE FOUNTAIN DRINKS ARE DIRTIER THAN A TOILET
Ice machines are notoriously difficult to clean, making them veritable petri dishes. In an award-winning science project, 12-year-old Floridian Jasmine Roberts compared the bacterial content in ice water and toilet water from fast food restaurants. It was found that 70 percent of the time ice from fast food restaurants was dirtier than the toilet water. In several cases, the ice tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which comes from human waste. Appetite, ruined.
THE COFFEE MAY MAKE YOU DEPRESSED
Styrofoam cups, the kind many food places use to serve up your morning latte, can leach styrene. If that sounds scary, that's because it is. The neurotoxin that can cause depression and a loss of concentration. Highly acidic or hot beverages—in other words, coffee—draw the plastic compound out more effectively than, say, cold water would.
IT DOESN'T GO BAD…
In 2010, New York photographer Sally Davies put a McDonald's hamburger and fries in a jar. Five months later, the food still looked edible while KFC fries bought and stored on the same day were white and furry with mold. Marion Nestle, chair of NYU's food studies program, told Salon that McDonald's would have to use "a lot of sodium propionate to prevent bacterial or mold growth." Davies continues to take photos of the same meal and post them on her website; as of July 2015, it has not noticeably disintegrated.