The Surprising Cost of Fast Food Calories

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Smart Money has produced a most instructive display of the cost of 100 calories in meals at fast food restaurants. Click on the numbers starting with #1 (for which you have to click on #2 - the numbers are off by 1 for some reason). #1 is the most expensive: $1.47 per 100 calories for at McDonald's Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken. # 13 (click on #14) is a Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese at 49 cents for 100 calories but you have to buy 1010 calories at this price. The cheapest, #15 (click on #16) is a 32-ounce Coca-Cola at 38 cents per 100.

Even with glimmers of hope for the recovery, consumers are still cutting back -- especially when it comes to dining out. But turning to some of fast food's biggest bargains in order to stretch your dollar in the recession may be one belt-tightening measure that could end up forcing you to loosen your buckle by a couple of notches.

Going out for cheap eats is an obvious way for consumers to keep their spending in check. That's why fast food restaurants are seen as a good investment in tough times. McDonald's (MCD: 54.31, -0.99, -1.79%) and Yum! Brands (YUM: 34.87, +0.35, +1.01%), which operates Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut (among others) both reported stellar fourth quarters as proof. Bucking that trend were Burger King (BKC: 18.59, -0.31, -1.64%) and CKE Restaurants (CKR: 9.85, +0.10, +1.02%), the operator of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. Burger King reported that it experienced "significant" traffic declines in March (it reported 1% same-store sales growth) and CKE's same-store sales were down 2.7%. Nevertheless, that slide is still modest when compared with the double-digit losses at higher-end restaurant chains like Ruth's Hospitality Group's (RUTH: 2.74, +0.64, +30.47%) Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Benihana (BNHN: 5.05, +0.77, +17.99%).

It would be interesting to do the same thing for nutritional value. Could nutrients (other than calories) be proportional to cost? That idea might be worth a closer look.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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