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Nutrition Facts Challenge Some Fast-Food Eaters

Fast-food eaters tend to underestimate how many calories they're consuming, according to recent studies. And restaurants aren't doing enough to help dispel myths about foods perceived as healthy, according to one health expert.

Chains such McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKW) and Wendy's (WEN) now serve salads that seem healthy. But in some cases, salad dressing adds significant amounts of fat, salt and sugar to the mix. McDonald's, for instance, doesn't include salad dressing in its nutrition data for a salad. Instead, the dressing is listed separately on the company's web site. A grilled chicken Caesar salad without dressing is 190 calories. But the dressing adds another 190 calories to the salad, according to the chain's nutritional information.

"I think the fast food industry as a whole can definitely be a little bit more transparent, when they're communicating some of these menu changes," said Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. She notes that small portions of menu items, such as fries, are the default sizes listed online.

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"As an average American, I'm more likely to order the large fry. I think that needs to be clearly, clearly on the website so people understand what they're looking at," Kirkpatrick told Big Data Download.

Fast food fans who don't see calorie data on restaurant menus and packaging underestimate the calories they're eating, according to a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research program.

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But it's not just about the calories. Saturated fats, salt and sugars are contributing to obesity and other illnesses, and fast food chains should be doing more to help educate the public, Kirkpatrick said. Highlighting the difference between fried chicken and grilled chicken on a salad for instance, could help Americans eat healthier.

“I think that consumers are confused, they think that they're getting a healthy deal, but this is an opportunity to give a little bit more education on how they can get the most bang for their nutritional buck."

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“The amount of millions and millions of people that walk through the doors of a fast food restaurant every day is huge. And so they are a very powerful agent of change." Kirkpatrick said. "I think it would be wonderful even if it was an experiment to see how it worked, to see if a fast food company can create a value menu based on the value of the nutrients and what it actually does to improve our health."

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