Fast food restaurants market too heavily to kids, a report finds

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It’s no secret kids like fast food. And fast food likes kids--so much so that some companies have ramped up their marketing efforts in the past couple of years, says a new report released Monday from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

The report details findings on fast food marketing and nutrition information, based on examining the marketing endeavors of 12 large national fast food chains. Researchers also looked at data on nutritional information in more than 3,000 children’s meal combos and 2,781 menu items.

The information doesn’t put fast food companies in the best light. For example, the report found that (shocker) unhealthful foods reign on menus. Out of 3,039 likely meal combinations, a dozen met nutrition standards the researchers set for preschoolers, and 15 met the criteria for older children. Sugar and saturated fat make up at least 30% of the calories of items bought by kids and teens.


The report is also critical of how some fast food restaurants don’t make healthful options more obvious. It found that although most establishments have at least one nourishing side dish and beverage for their children’s meals, these are hardly ever offered as an alternate choice. And despite advertisements that show healthful options, the report finds that French fries are served with kids’ meals 86% of the time, and soft drinks at least 55% of the time.

Exposure to fast food advertising is escalating, according to the report. In 2009 preschoolers saw 56% more ads for Subway, 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more ads for Burger King, compared with 2007. Children age 6 to 11 saw even more: 59% more ads for Subway, 26% more for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.

The report also found that African American kids and teens are exposed to at least 50% more fast food ads than their white counterparts.

“Our results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough,” said study co-author Kelly Brownell, director and co-founder of the Rudd Center, in a news release. “If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it.”

The Rudd Center isn’t the only organization becoming fed up with fast food restaurants marketing to kids. Last week the board of supervisors in San Francisco voted to ban Happy Meals and similar restaurant items that come with a toy and have disproportionate amounts of fat, calories and sodium. Another vote may be necessary to make the ban final.