Would you like spinach with that?

Making fast food more nutritious

provided by University of Arkansas

t doesn't matter whether you're the guy with the triple cheese bacon burger or the woman with the veggie sub. University of Arkansas researchers say that one little change to your fast food meal could significantly improve your nutrient intake for the day. The best part is, you won't even taste the difference.

    Marjorie Fitch-Hilgenberg, assistant professor of nutrition in the school of human environmental sciences, and Teddy Morelock, professor of horticulture, have been pulling a fast one on fast food consumers swapping spinach for the iceberg lettuce that usually garnishes burgers and subs. The result is a sandwich that provides far greater quantities of key nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin A and folic acid.

    “We know from the literature that people don't eat the recommended number of servings of vegetables, and as a result, they're missing out on the nutrients these vegetables provide,” Hilgenberg said. “With spinach, we realized we could make a small change to the foods people already eat and have a significant impact on their nutritional status.”

    The project began in 1999, when Hilgenberg and Morelock set out to get more people eating spinach. The key, they realized, was not to promote spinach as the mushy, green glop that most people remember from their high school cafeterias but to introduce spinach into everyday foods, foods people already enjoy eating.

    In preparing for the study, Hilgenberg came across a statistic, which claimed that people in the United States consumed more than 10.5 billion sandwiches each year over half of these sandwiches being hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Considering this rate of consumption, Hilgenberg and Morelock knew they had found the right vehicle to get spinach into the mouths of billions of Americans.

    The researchers began their study by approaching a local burger franchise and explaining their intent. The restaurant allowed Hilgenberg and Morelock to purchase ingredients for one of their signature burgers. Taking these ingredients back to their lab, the researchers prepared hundreds of hamburgers according to the restaurant's specifications. However, some of the burgers contained iceberg lettuce while the others were garnished with curly-leaf Savoy spinach a variety that Morelock himself had developed.

    Having prepared the hamburgers, Hilgenberg and Morelock conducted a blind taste test in which 40 subjects each received three half-burgers. Some subjects received two halves with lettuce and one half with spinach. Others had two halves with spinach and one half with lettuce. After tasting each half, the subjects completed a survey about their burger samples.

    “The subjects didn't know what they were tasting for, which part of the sandwich we had changed,” Hilgenberg said. When the researchers reviewed the survey results, they found that subjects rated the spinach burgers equally as tasty as the ones with lettuce. In addition, none of the subjects seemed to suspect that the lettuce had been tampered with. Comments ranged from “too much onion” to “I don't like hamburgers.”

    “Only one or two people mentioned that the lettuce looked very green,” Hilgenberg added. “That's as close as they got to guessing.”

    With the successful completion of the first study, Hilgenberg and Morelock next approached two other fast food chains, one that specializes in sandwiches and another that makes Mexican food. Using ingredients from each of these restaurants, the researchers performed the same experiment, recruiting even more subjects than they'd had for the burgers. They found similar results people accepted the spinach as though it was lettuce.

    Coupled with the nutritional value of spinach, this tacit public acceptance makes a strong case for fast food restaurants to incorporate the vegetable into their meals, Hilgenberg and Morelock claim.

    “The main concern of the fast food industry is consistency,” Hilgenberg said. “The reason we have fast food chains is to ensure that you can get the same taco in Fayetteville, AR, that you would buy in Sacramento, CA.

    “We've proven that consumers can't taste the difference between spinach and lettuce in fast food, so there's no reason not to be using it. Even a 50/50 blend of lettuce and spinach would provide a significant boost of nutrients,” she added.

    And these nutrients could be especially valuable to young people the main consumers of fast food in America. Besides needing vitamins and minerals for their own growth and development, young women need to maintain proper levels of folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects in their future children. Further, Hilgenberg cites recent research that associates insufficient vegetable consumption with increased risk for health conditions like cancer.

    Hilgenberg and Morelock's findings come at a time of increasing scrutiny of the fast food industry. Medical and media professionals alike are demonizing fast food as a major threat to American health. So why bother making fast food more nutritious when it's clearly bad for our overall health?

    “Because the fact is, people eat it,” Hilgenberg answers. “Knowing that fast food restaurants aren't going out of business anytime soon, this study goes right to the heart of the matter. Make one small change for the better.”