Combo Meals Aren’t Always Fast-Food Deals

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If you think "combo meals" are always sweet deals, think again. A new study shows combo meals often cost the same as ordering everything individually - and give you less choice and more calories.

The next time you order a hamburger and a soda from your favorite fast-food joint, and the cashier asks, “Do you want fries with that?” – think twice before buying the so-called “combo meal.”

That’s because a new study from the University of Virginia says the combo meal isn’t necessarily a great deal. And it has some unhealthy drawbacks.

Combo meals encourage consumers to “super-size” their orders, the study says, because they appear to pack a lot of food into a tiny price. But they really don’t. “We were very much surprised that people chose the combo meal option even when there was no price discount,” professor Kathryn Sharpe says.

More findings from the study:

When presented with bundled and á la carte options from fast food menus, the researchers saw significant increases in the proportion of people who bought both a drink and fries when a combo meal is offered.  Furthermore, consumers tended to purchase smaller portion sizes when they bought á la carte.  For example, a consumer may purchase a 12-ounce drink when buying a la carte, but a 21-ounce drink (approximately a 100 calorie difference) when the combo meal was purchased.

Here’s what happens inside your head: You think the combo meal is cheaper, when many times, if you ordered all those same items individually, the price would be the same.

Here’s what happens in your stomach: Combo meals often contain way more calories than you’d eat if you ordered separately – because you feel compelled to finish everything you bought. Given the choice, you might’ve gone with that small order of fries instead of the larger, for instance. Result? You get fatter more quickly.

Worse still, the researchers found that many fast-food customers have “the underlying belief that a combo meal is considered a representative or appropriate meal size for the average consumer.” Actually, the fast-food chains aren’t counting calories at all. They just count profits. So if you think a combo meal is somehow a balanced meal, you’re wrong.

The healthiest and cheapest advice? When you order fast food – and 22 percent of Americans do at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center – say no to the combo. Or at least see if you’re actually getting a deal.

Stacy Johnson

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