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The Truth About "Value Meals"

News flash: Fast food is bad for you!Okay, you probably already knew that. But in a recession like this, isn't it tempting to bite at anything labeled "value?"I just noticed on one of my favorite food blogs, The Food Section, that a DC-based nonprofit called the Cancer Project published a report th...

News flash: Fast food is bad for you!

Okay, you probably already knew that. But in a recession like this, isn't it tempting to bite at anything labeled "value?"

I just noticed on one of my favorite food blogs, The Food Section, that a DC-based nonprofit called the Cancer Project published a report this week picking on the negative nutritional value of items on fast-food "value menus." It ranks the worst offenders: a junior bacon cheeseburger from Jack-in-the-Box tops the list, followed by Taco Bell's cheesy double beef burrito. McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's all take a hit as well.

The rankings were based on familiar factors including high fat, sodium, cholesterol and total caloric content, low fiber, and lack of fruits and vegetables (no, pickles don't count). The top-five worst culprits, priced at less than two bucks, contain on average 396 calories, 21 grams of fat, and more than 1,000 mg of sodium. Nothing junior about that.

Perhaps more controversially, the Cancer Project researchers also demoted menu items that included dairy products, which it says elevates the body's level of a cancer-causing hormone. But there are plenty of conflicting studies out there about the cancer-dairy connection, and dairy is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, which may lower the risk of colorectal cancer. Oh, but wait, that depends on if you eat it as a child or an adult ... I'm confused, but it seems like we shouldn't throw the cheese out with the burger just yet.

The Cancer Project's value-menu study brings up a good point, though: There's a clear link between nutrition and socioeconomic status. I bet a lot of the people buying those 99-cent bacon burgers know very well they're not eating something healthy. But I would also bet they can't afford—in terms of money, or time—to shop for $8-a-pound organic grass-fed beef and $5 turkey bacon at upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods and take it home to cook. (To its credit, Whole Foods is now offering a list of "budget-conscious recipes" and "money-saving tips" on its Website. It claims these low-fat turkey burgers can be made for less than $3 a person, but you do need a grill.)

For folks in the middle like me, it's a balancing act: I don't eat fast-food, period. But I do pay attention to coupons, sales, and "unit prices" at the grocery store. I'll shell out more for organic vegetables or whole-grain bread, but mix those items with cheaper products like generic beans or pasta. One of my favorite lunches is simply to mix up some canned chickpeas, steamed broccoli florets and fat-free Italian salad dressing. That breaks down to pennies a day, and it's very healthy.

What's on your personal "value menu?"
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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