New research from The George Institute for Global Health shows some of Australia's most popular fast food chains are serving up almost all an average person's daily energy needs in a single meal.
According to the FoodSwitch: State of the Fast Food Supply report, which assessed the healthiness of Australian fast food products in 2019, Red Rooster's Bacon and Cheese Rippa roll "combo" packs the most energy of quick-service chain meals with 7730 kilojoules per serving, or 89 per cent of the recommended average adult daily energy intake.
It also contains 4571 milligrams of sodium, more than double the suggested dietary target.
The same $10.49 Red Rooster Rippa (featuring two chicken strips, two slices of bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce) placed fifth on the list of burgers and rolls with the most kilojoules.
Hungry Jacks Double Smoky BBQ Angus was found to have the most energy in the burger category with two beef patties, two cheese slices, bacon, mayonnaise and fried onions contributing to its 5610 kilojoules and $15.15 price tag.
"Previous research has shown the majority of chains don't publicly identify nutrition and health as a focus area, but Red Rooster and Hungry Jacks show some particularly bad habits," said Dr Alexandra Jones, public health lawyer and research fellow at The George Institute.
"Red Rooster, for example, offers many meal combinations as a 'large' size by default, which adds huge amounts of needless sugar in soft drinks and extra fat in fries on the side.
"Meanwhile, Hungry Jacks 'Hunger Tamer' package deals feature multiple burgers, chicken nuggets, chips and a drink for one person. These deals may be cheap, but the way they're marketed and sold is making us sick."
According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia has some of the highest obesity rates in the world. Nearly two-thirds of Australian adults and one in four children are overweight or obese and poor diet is estimated to account for at least 25,000 Australian deaths each year.
The George Institute analysis included 4702 menu items across 27 chains such as McDonald's, Grill'd and Oporto. Out of the 144 combo meals analysed, 60 exceeded the suggested dietary target for sodium. 23 of these were from Red Rooster and 18 from Hungry Jacks.
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"High salt intakes are closely linked to high blood pressure which is the leading cause of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke," said Dr Jones.
According to Red Rooster chief executive Clint Ault, the company aims to offer choice to consumers. "Our menu is diverse, offering healthier [choices] through to the more indulgent items," he said.
"The Bacon and Cheese Rippa meal is actually not one of our biggest selling items on the menu and accounts for just over 1 per cent of total sales. There are many meals on our menu that are actually under a third of the daily kilojoule intake."
A Hungry Jacks spokesperson said the fast-food chain was "building on its position as an industry innovator" by introducing low-carbohydrate burgers, fresh chicken salads and wraps, and a plant-based Whopper.
"Hungry Jack's is also trialling low-sodium chicken nuggets, with a view to a national launch later in the year," said the spokesperson.
Dr Jones acknowledged Hungry Jacks was trying to incorporate healthier options into some parts of its menu but said "you also have to wonder how much use a low-carb bun is when it's part of something called a 'Tendercrisp Cheesy Bacon' burger".
Plant-based burgers (which often contain a high amount of carbohydrates), were found to have the highest average energy content per serving in the entire burger category at 3097 kilojoules per item.
Dr Jones also criticised fast food companies for marketing to people isolating at home over the past 10 weeks. Kentucky Fried Chicken has launched a "staying in" menu, while Subway is suggesting customers eat salami sandwiches in bed, and Krispy Kreme is using Facebook to promote its doughnuts as the perfect accompaniment to Netflix and computer games.
"Without sporting events or mass outdoor advertising to rely on, many of these companies are using social media and appealing to Australians to use comfort food to get us through these 'unprecedented' times," she said.
"But our research highlights that most products made by the major chains are unhealthy, sold in oversize servings and packed full of cheap and harmful ingredients. This is not great news for Australia's health."
Over the past four years the federal government has tried to engage industry in its voluntary Healthy Food Partnership program to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat in products, but so far has seen very limited progress, said Dr Jones.
"If companies won't do this voluntarily, the government should set higher standards for how the fast food industry makes, markets and sells its products."