Fast-food restaurants across Australia are all riled up about a new study rating them on their commitment to addressing obesity. The average rating for all companies in Deakin University's Inside our Quick Service Restaurants report was just 27 out of a possible score of 100. Bottom-placed Domino's Pizza scored 3/100. None received a pass mark.
All riled up? Good, I say.
All companies were invited to participate directly – only Subway and Nando's (which ultimately ranked first and fourth respectively) took up the opportunity. This makes the outcry from those who scored poorly seem a bit hollow.
For the rest of us it's a win. This kind of benchmarking isn't meant to be kind. It's a transparent way to give kudos to market leaders and call out those who are dragging the chain. It works.
The Deakin study rated companies only on their stated commitments. Domino's chief executive was quick to point out the pizza chain's score was not a reflection on its actual healthiness.
However, The George Institute (an independent medical research institute), in partnership with Cancer Council NSW, has already looked into that. Ranking fast-food restaurants using the Health Star Rating already applied to packaged food products, Domino's was in the middle of the pack, faring slightly better than Pizza Hut, but worse than Crust. Subway, Oporto and Red Rooster did slightly better.
Beyond the corporate public relations response, online coverage of the study was riddled with reader replies that those who eat fast food deserve what's coming to them.
At a time when two-thirds of Australians are overweight or obese, this is misguided. The obesity epidemic isn't caused by a massive failure of willpower. What has happened is that we're now living in a toxic food environment – surrounded by convenient, cheap foods high in energy, salt, sugar and fat.
Our waistlines would be better if we all thoughtfully prepared dinners and packed lunches according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. While this is a nice aspiration, it's entirely implausible. We spend 32 per cent of our household food budget eating out. New research from Roy Morgan shows that in any six-month period, more than half of us eat McDonald's alone and nearly two million Australians now use home delivery services like UberEats.
We must do more to get these fast-food restaurants to help us eat better. The recommendations in the Inside our Quick Service Restaurants report are a great start: make water the default drink, stop advertising to kids, use pricing to promote healthy options, and set specific targets to reduce salt, sugar, saturated fat, energy and portion size. With a bit of innovation, new digital platforms and algorithms used by delivery services could quickly make healthier the default choice.
The Government's Healthy Food Partnership has this firmly on its agenda. But in its voluntary form and with meagre investment, the findings of this week's report are unsurprising.
On the upside, a starting point this low makes it pretty easy to improve. Many companies could probably double their scores just by showing a willingness to start thinking about the problem. Is that really too much to ask?
Alexandra Jones is a research associate and PhD candidate in The George Institute for Global Health's Food Policy Division.