March 19, 2013

Beware of calorie counts in secret menu items

A report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine shines a light on the nutritional disaster that comes from five fast food “secret menu’’ items. “Unofficial’’ menus are becoming more popular as consumer practices change.

The Suicide Burger isn’t listed on Burger King’s official restaurant menu boards. Think of it as the fast-food chain’s version of the secret handshake.

Bolstered by social media, secret menus are growing increasingly popular at fast-food chains everywhere from Burger King and McDonald’s to Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and Taco Bell.

But buyer beware, says the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which will release a report this week highlighting the five worst secret-menu items.

Burger King’s Suicide Burger makes the list, ringing up at 800 calories with 53 grams of fat and 2,430 milligrams of sodium. That’s nearly 1,000 milligrams more than the American Heart Association recommends the average American consume in a day. A total of 60 percent of the burger’s calories come from fat. The caloric disaster, also known as a Quad Stacker with extra cheese, includes four patties, four slices of cheese, bacon and special sauce.

“We just want to draw people’s attention to the fact that these type of foods are not without consequence,” said Susan Levin, a registered dietician and director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who estimated the dietary information for the items based on published data. “There’s a reason these companies don’t list these items on their menu.’’ The companies would have to post the nutritional values “and they don’t want to be seen that way.”

The good news for Burger King is that the picture is even worse at McDonald’s, which offers two secret menu items that make the list. The McDonald’s Monster Mac, a big Mac with eight burgers, tips the calorie counters at 1,390 calories, 92 grams of fat and 2,920 milligrams of sodium. The McDonald’s Mc10:35 is a little harder to find — you can only get it around 10:30 a.m., when the kitchen shifts from breakfast to lunch — to order the McDouble burger/Egg McMuffin hybrid. If you time it right, it will only set you back 540 calories, 29 grams of fat and 1,390 milligrams of sodium.

Rounding out the rest of the “worst secret menu items’’ are the Chipotle Quesarito, a burrito wrapped in a cheese quesadilla, and a Starbucks Super Cream Frappuccino, a mocha Frappuccino with a half cup of whipped cream.

Until recent years the secret menu was more of a cult concept. But now, you’ll find these items growing in popularity as a generation of consumers wants the chance to design their own food items.

“What usually drives 95 percent of secret menus is the consumer, not the restaurant brand,” said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant industry consultant with WD Partners. “Social media just makes secret menus a lot easier to communicate and talk about. Fifteen years ago it was just word of mouth. Now you can Tweet it, Facebook it, put it on Four Square or Pinterest.”

Warning: Some of these items are still so secret, there’s no guarantee a restaurant employee will know what it is when you walk in to place the order.

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