Nov. 8, 2010 -- Despite pledges made by some of the leading fast food chains, many seem to still be promoting largely unhealthy meals and choices to children, according to a new report by researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity in New Haven, Conn.
The new report examined the marketing of 12 top fast food chains, and then looked at the amount of fat calories, fat, sugar, and sodium in 3,039 kids' meals and 2,781 menu items. The findings are slated to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Denver.
Unhealthy Food Choices Are the Default
Of the 3,000-plus kids meals, just 12 met the nutritional criteria for preschoolers, and just 15 met the nutrition criteria set for older children, the study showed. In fact, one single meal from most fast food restaurants contains at least half of young people's daily recommended sodium.
Fast food marketing to kids also leaves much to be desired, the researchers report. Preschoolers see 21% more fast food ads today than in 2003 and older children see 34% more fast food ads, the new report found.
"There is a staggering amount of exposure to fast food advertising that begins when children are as young as 2," says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiative at the Rudd Center.
McDonald's and Burger King have upheld their 2008 commitment to show healthier meals in TV ads directed to children under 12.
This is "a start, but it's not enough," says Harris.
Fast food ads don't always run during children's TV programs, and many ad campaigns, including social media advertising, are about building brand recognition instead of food choices.
"About 60% of ads are not on kids programming, but a lot of children are seeing them and having a large impact," says Harris. For example, "American Idol, Glee, or sports programs are places where we will see a lot of unhealthy fast food ads."
Bait and Switch?
"There is still a lot of fast food advertising aimed at kids," says Margo G. Wootan, PhD, the nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C.
Other options aimed at curbing marketing unhealthy food choices to kids include the recent San Francisco ban on giving away toys with unhealthy children's meals.
"The goal is not take the happy out of happy meal, but to put the happy and healthy together," she says. "It's nice that some companies have changed their advertising, but we need to address all ways that they market to kids," Wootan says.
"It is great that they show apples and low-fat milk in advertising, but a child sees an ad for McDonald's and no matter what food is in the ad, it's an ad to go to McDonalds, and once they get to the restaurant almost all of possible kids' meal combinations are unhealthy and they automatically come with french fries and sugary drinks," she tells WebMD.
Mystery Shopping Experiment
Rudd researchers took it one step further and sent mystery shoppers to various fast food restaurants to see if they were offered healthy options with their meals.
All fast food restaurants except Subway seemed to offer an unhealthy side or drink as the default, and if there was a choice, the unhealthy options were first on the list. Specifically, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Taco Bell automatically served french fries or another unhealthy side dish 84% of the time, the study shows.
Subway offered milk, flavored milk, or 100% juice, plus apple slices or yogurt with the kids meals 60% of the time, the new report showed.
"You have to work very hard to get a healthy side and drink in kids’ meals," says Marlene Schwartz, Rudd's deputy director.
Fast Food Industry Responds
"There can be no dispute that that the restaurant industry has been committed to providing a growing array of nutritious offerings for children," says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, the National Restaurant Association's Director of Nutrition and Healthy Living, in a statement. "Numerous surveys show the increasing number of healthful options in kids’ meals, and nutritious offerings in children's meals is the number one food trend in quick-service restaurants. The industry has also led the way in advocating that nutrition information be made available to consumers in chain restaurants," she says.
"A menu labeling provision that the industry strongly supported became law last year and will soon require calories on the menu in 200,000 restaurant locations nationwide," Dubost says. “Measures like this will help empower consumers, providing them with the detailed nutrition information they are looking for to make the best decisions for themselves and their families."
Both McDonald's and Burger King restated their commitments to responsible marketing.
"McDonald's remains committed to responsible marketing practices, including advertising and promotional campaigns for our youngest customers. Consistent with our 2006 commitment to the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Food Pledge, 100 percent of our children’s advertising in the U.S. features dietary choices that fit within the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans," Neil Golden, the senior vice president and Chief Marketing Officer of McDonald's USA, says in a statement. "We primarily advertise our popular 375 calorie four-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip, and a jug of 1-percent low fat milk."
Burger King had this to say: "As part of Burger King Corp.’s HAVE IT YOUR WAY® brand promise, we offer a variety of menu options that empower guests to choose items that are best for their lifestyle. In addition, as part of our BK Positive Steps® corporate responsibility program, in 2007, BKC pledged to restrict 100 percent of national advertising aimed at children under 12 to BK® Kids Meals that meet stringent nutrition criteria. BKC’s nutrition criteria for BK® Kids Meals (consisting of an entrée, side dish, and beverage) are based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other federal and scientifically established dietary recommendations and defined as [having] no more than 560 calories per meal [and] less than 30 percent of calories from fat."