Burger Wars

Reporter: Bryan Seymour

New research shows a fast food explosion. With the economy shrinking, millions are turning to quick, cheaper meals and the big chains are licking their lips.

Others, though, are sickened because of what's in the most popular fast foods we're now choosing.

"MacDonalds have had incredible growth over the past year, globally they had an increase in profits of about 80%" says Edward Butler.

We already eat 1.6 billion fast food meals a year. We spend $12.4 billion yet incredibly, we're hungry for more... much more.

Remember the healthy food pyramid?

Take look at the new food pyramid. Fueled with supplies from 16,000 fast food outlets nationwide - we're a nation growing out of control.

"Today, the fast food chains serve 60% of all fast food meals in Australia compared to the independent outlets" says Sissel.

Sissel Rosengren from research company Bis Schrapnel worked on the just released fast food in Australia report.

Their survey of 1,200 consumers found West Australians love drive thru's; not that many of us like home delivered meals and most of do like to, at least, think healthy.

"The difference is we eat more hamburgers, it is a more popular choice today, in today's market then when what is was three years ago there has been a growth and that equates with trend exactly the same trend as we are seeing in European markets and also in the US markets. The winners in today's market in terms of fast food is definitely the international chains but actually it's skewed towards the hamburger chains" adds Sissel.

Macdonalds heads the fast food field with 17% of the total market share. 1% more than KFC and Pizza Hut, which are owned by the same company. Hungry Jack's services 4% of the market. While nearly two thirds is made up of everything from Subways, to fried chicken, kebabs and sushi.

Globally MacDonalds sales have increased 7%, in Australia, they're up more than 10%. Forty new stores are planned. At the same time, the traditional Aussie favourite fast foods, fish and chips and pies, are today the least favourite fast foods, despite being an often healthier alternative.

These days it's hamburgers - at 30%, they eclipse pizza and chicken to dominate the industry. And just like our waistlines, they're about to get even bigger.

"Australians just aren't going to the restaurant anymore and what they're doing is turning to fast food." Senior analyst Edward Butler worked on the fast food industry report for independent research firm Ibisworld.

"We're looking at a drop of restaurants across the board of about 8% in 2009 which is a horrendous number and it's really catastrophic for particularly high end restaurants" adds Edward.

We're swapping the romantic meal for the happy meal.

Nutrition scientist and dietician Dr Joanna McMillan Price says a close look at what we're eating can confront. Take the top-selling burgers.

"Comparing a Big Mac with a Whopper, the Whopper has a third more energy, compared to the Big Mac. Now there's a difference in size there but you can see that if you're regularly choosing a Whopper over a big Mac you're getting a considerable amount more energy" says Dr McMillan Price. "It also has more than half the fat again, so more than 50% more fat."

The Quarter Pounder is another top seller, as is its Hungry Jacks counterpart.

"There's 15% more calories in the Double Whopper with cheese, but there's a quarter more fat, so 15% more fat" says Dr McMillan Price. "There's 5% less protein, so, you know, something strange is going on there."

"Well there was 27% more energy in the McChicken, so that was against the McChicken version, and 12% more fat and it also had more than 50% the carbohydrate in the grilled chicken burger" she adds.

Hungry Jack's chicken burger claws back some nutritional points - though its cheeseburgers leaves a lot to be desired.

"Thirty per cent more calories in the Hungry Jacks cheeseburger and again more than 50% the fat."

"I have less a problem with the burger than the bun. I don't know why they can't have a healthier bun that's not so full of sugar. If you put it in your mouth, think about what happens, it almost dissolves so we're digesting and absorbing the carbohydrate in that kind of bread very, very quickly."

All the experts are predicting we'll eat more sushi, noodles and Asian foods, because they're relatively new and more healthy.

They also agree the big fast food chains will stay firmly at the head of the table.

"We still want to go out, we still want to have fun for the family, and to continue eating out, but we don't go out as often and we don't spend as much each time" says Sissel.

"They don't want to spend $200 on a meal anymore, they'd much rather spend $10 or $20 and get a more traditional hamburger or pizza or something like that in these tough economic times" says Edward.