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Food carts are on nearly every street corner in the heart of the city. On a recent Friday, we counted 78 in Center City. You can understand why lines form around them at breakfast and lunchtime. As one eloquent Halal cart customer put it, “It’s cheap and fast.” In fact, cart food is often faster – and cheaper – than the fast food chains.
Unlike McDonalds, Starbucks, Cosi and other eateries in Philly, food carts do not have to post calorie counts.
We wondered: just how nutritional are those fast and cheap food cart meals? To find out, we bought the 10 most popular food cart items and sent them to QC Laboratories of Southampton, which conducted a nutritional analysis of the items to determine how many calories, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, fat and sodium are in popular food cart foods.
Here’s what we found out.
Good things don’t always come in small packages.
Take, for example, the humble corn muffin. Toasted with butter, of course. While its relatively small in length and width, it packs major calories: 688 to be exact. It also packs some major sugar, 38 grams, and is relatively high in sodium, 550 mg.
As Beth Wallace Smith, a dietician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, put it:
“I don’t think people realize what a muffin really is. It’s a cupcake without frosting.” Muffins are typically loaded with calories, Wallace Smith said, and sometimes with a lot of additional solid fats. “It’s not a nutrient-dense food,” she said. “It’s a calorie-dense food.”
You’re better off indulging in a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich for the amount of food you get. You can even load up on the ketchup and salt and pepper. The sandwich has slightly fewer calories, 585, and far less sugar, 7 grams, than the corn muffin. But when it comes to salt, it has one of the highest counts of the items that we tested: 1,458 mg in total. So, hold off on that extra salt packet.
In fact, most food cart food is loaded with salt. Wallace Smith said she was shocked by the amount of sodium in a number of the items, including the sausage, egg and cheese sandwich. The egg sandwich, along with the chicken and beef cheesesteak approach the limit of sodium an adult is supposed to have in one day. The USDA recommends 2,300 mg of sodium for adults per day.
But Wallace Smith said the American Heart Association recommends that people with conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes should consume no more than 1,500 mg per day.
Which is healthier? Chicken or beef cheesesteak?
This one may come as a shock. If you are looking for a (slightly) healthier option, choose the beef. The beef cheesesteak has slightly fewer calories at 506 than the chicken cheesesteak at 561. Doused with onions, ketchup and cheese of course, neither of these are a suitable option if you’re looking to avoid carbs or salt. But, the beef cheesesteak has fewer calories, carbs, sodium and fat than the chicken cheesesteak.
Both are salt bombs, though, with the sodium count coming close to the total daily recommended limit of sodium for an adult.
Vegetarian must be healthy. Or is it?
Those four fried falafel balls (say that fast five times) packed into a pita pocket could you leave you feeling bloated all day. At 774 calories it only has six fewer calories than its meat-packed companion, the beef gyro, which has 780 calories. “People think that they’re getting a vegetarian, bean-based, perhaps more healthy plant-based item,” Wallace Smith said, “But you have to think about the context it’s served.” Fried, on a white pita typically covered in tzatziki and hot sauces. Both items contains high levels of fat: 46 grams for the gyro and 43 for the falafel – the highest of any of the 10 items tested. On the other hand, they are both fairly high in protein. Halal stands that offer food cart variations of Mediterranean food are becoming more common in Center City.
Drum roll: Kielbasa sandwich vs. hotdog.
In one corner you have the kielbasa, laid gently on a long hoagie roll topped with onions and ketchup. In the other corner, you have the hotdog doused with mustard and stuffed into a fluffy roll. Your best bet here is the hotdog. At 290 calories, that sucker does have an awful lot of salt, though. But the kielbasa packs a lot more calories: 472. As with most of the other foods, they are both dense with salt: 860 mg in the hot dog, 976 mg in the kielbasa.
Most condiments have only a handful of calories, but mustard in particular can add to the total count of salt.
The Philly staple.
A Federal soft pretzel is just about as traditional a snack as you can get in the City of Brotherly Love. But watch out for the love handles that will follow if you make them a habit. At $1.50 it may get you a quick snack, but one pretzel has 360 calories. Those crystals of salt on the top do add up: 1,100 mg in total. If you add mustard, that’s another 110 mgs. A lot of people buy a pretzel to accompany a sandwich they buy at a cart. That’s when the calories really add up. A lunch consisting of a beef cheesesteak, a pretzel and a 20 oz. grape or orange soda has 1,200 calories, 2,800 mgs of salt and 87 grams of sugar – that’s the equivalent of 29 teaspoons of sugar.
The only healthy option.
The fruit salad. Seriously, have two. Coming in at under 100 calories is the large fruit salad, which weighs in at 78 calories, with just one gram of fat and 77 mg of sodium. Beware, though, this mélange of fresh melons, strawberries, pineapple and seasonal fruit, does have a lot of sugar, 57 mg. In general, Wallace Smith recommends eating at a food cart once-in-while, view it as a special treat. “The only thing that should be happening every day is the fruit salad,” she said.
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