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Study: Fast food marketing up, food still unhealthy
November 8th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Study: Fast food marketing up, food still unhealthy

Fast food marketing to children is on the rise, according to a new study, and the foods that popular restaurant chains are advertising are extremely unhealthy.

The report, released Monday by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, looked at 12 popular restaurant chains, and out of more than 3,000 kids meal combinations, found only 12 that met the nutritional guidelines for preschool-aged kids.

"The worst meal was at Dairy Queen," said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Yale center, and the lead study author. "It was a cheeseburger, french fries, a sugar sweetened soft drink and a chocolate Dilly Bar, which totaled 973 calories."

The No. 2 culprit: KFC's popcorn chicken kids meal, served with a biscuit, soda and a side of string cheese – totaling 840 calories.

Of the 12 meals that made the grade, Harris said it was Subway's "Veggie Delite," paired with apple slices and 100-percent juice that took the award for healthiest kids meal at 285 calories. Burger King's macaroni and cheese meal with apple slices and fat-free milk came in at 285 calories as well.

In addition to nutritional value, the study also looked at fast food marketing to kids, and found that the average preschooler is seeing 21 percent more fast food ads than they were in 2003. African American children saw almost 50 percent more ads than their white counterparts.

According to Harris, $4.2 billion was spent on advertising by the fast food industry in 2009 and it is working.  The report finds 40-percent of preschool aged children ask to go to McDonalds on a weekly basis, and 15 percent ask on a daily basis. Also, 84 percent of parents say they've taken their children to eat fast food at least once in the past week.

Harris and her colleagues did find that most of the fast food restaurants had healthy options as well, but they were hard to find.

"More than 80 percent of the time our mystery shoppers went into fast food restaurants, they were automatically given the french fries on the side," she said, "and more than half the time, they were automatically given a cup for soda. So, even though they have the healthy options, they aren't even asking people if they want them."

So what can the restaurants do better?

"One of the things we saw was how little they do inside the restaurants to promote healthy food, and that's where people are making decisions about what they want to buy," Harris said. "The No. 1  thing we're recommending is that they make the healthy option the default choice for kids meals."

The National Restaurant Association, a trade group, says the fast food industry has been committed to change, including offering a bigger range of nutritious options for kids.

"The industry has also led the way in advocating that nutrition information be made available to consumers in chain restaurants,” said Joy Dubost, the association's director of nutrition and healthy living. “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."


soundoff (151 Responses)
  1. Paula Black

    I work with lots of single parents who are lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals and sure, they know that the best thing for their kids is a homecooked meal but do they buy fast food meals for their children? Of course they do. The kids want the toys and a chance to play on the Play Area. The parents are stressed and have miles to go before they sleep after they've left work and traded the Professional Hat for the Parent Hat.

    Times are tough and the positive contribution of FastFood is it meets a need in a busy schedule. Maybe the focus of our energies should be not demonizing parents who buy fast foods for their kids, but instead pressuring the restaurants to offer better quality meals. Like Subway's Veggie Delite for one thing. Impossible? No. McDonalds listens – it sells apple slices now, you didn't see that several years back.

    Let's help the single parent – these hard working folk have enough on their shoulders, and they've got money in their pocket that the savvy fast food restaurant that actually met the need of Fun, Fast, Fresh, and Nutritious meals could make a bundle.

    Heck, I remember eating my spinach because of Popeye. This is a doable goal.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Louan

      You make a lot of great points which I neglected to consider in my posts. It's probably thanks to these parents that McDs and others started offering options like apple slices or carrot sticks. That said, I would hope that educated professional single parents can find better alternatives than fast food and not give in to the toy plea, or at least not on a regular basis. Even a simple quick meal at home like pasta with a side serving of green beans or broccoli is better than anything McDonalds can conjure up. Added bonus: less packaging waste and no crappy plastic toys that will only end up in a landfill as soon as they tire of them!

      November 8, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse |
    • Victor

      Paula...with all due respect...I'm not sure you read the artilce. It said that the healthy food that fast food resturaunts are offering are not being promotied or advertised (either in or outside the store). So...you can offer all the apple slices in the world...but if a kid associates McDs with hamburgers, he/she is not going to be coming in for apple slices. The only gatekeeper is the parents, and once they give up the ghost, there's not much left.

      November 8, 2010 at 14:06 | Report abuse |
  2. Debbie

    So people aren't supposed to think anymore? They aren't supposed to eat the foods that are actually good for them? The ones that they can prepare cheaply on their own? I find it incredible that people think they have to pay a fortune for junk food. Bring a danged sandwich and a piece of fruit to work for lunch. A fraction of the cost and you don't have pay for all of those high blood pressure and heart medications.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Tracy

    Blaming these fast food restaurants is ABSURD!!! If you are worried about your child's health then SAY NO! This is a parenting problem. Period.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. nflsuperfan

    People. If you want to avoid the ads that you and your children are so powerless against...TURN OFF THE TV AND OPEN A BOOK! QUIT BEING SO WEAK.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Victor

    The single most important statement made in this artlice was "$4.2 billion was spent on advertising by the fast food industry in 2009 and it is working." Simple fact...if a corporation makes money doing something, it has an obligation to its shareholders to continue doing it. The only defense people have is to (a) change the corporate laws – not going to happen; (b) fight against the bad adds with good adds promoting good health – may happen but will never be effective or (c) counter-act the effect of these adds with good parenting. Of the three, the last one is the only feasible alternative. As a very healthy adult who rarely ate fast or processed for growing up and rarely eats it today I can say that the burden is on the parents to ensure that children establish habits early on in which they associate meal time with home cooking and healthy habits. If they don't, the children run a very high risk of developing very unhealthy associations with food that they will carry forward into their adult years and transfer to their children. Food, like any other addictive substance, is very very dangerous. Please respect the danger and instill good habits in your kids. It is one of the most important things you can do as a parent.

    November 8, 2010 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jeanne

    I feel that eating out whether it's a fast food establishment or an upscale restaurant, the foods that are offered on kids menus are rarely ever foods that are healthy and taste good... it's either one or the other. For example, fast food restaurants offer pre-packaged, hard and flavorless sliced granny smith apples on the kids menus, when they should be offering Honey Crisp or Gala apples. The salads in turn are usually made with favorless and nutrient poor iceberg lettuce and cucumbers, where they should be offering instead healthier options like romain lettuce, zucchinis, Persian cucumbers and red cabbage.

    November 8, 2010 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Deemer

    Its all about personal responsibility people. No one is forcing you to take your kids to McDonalds or any other fast food restaurants. Parents need to be parents and not allow your kids to be the parent. No matter how much they kick and scream too bad no McDonalds! This is the problem in this country the kids rule the household. Wake up parents, and start parenting instead of letting your kids walk all over you. The only way we should be having this debate is if McDonalds is physically shoving there product down your kids throats! Get over it!

    November 8, 2010 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Willette

    This is a little off the McDonalds problem, but I'm a nurse and I'm sickened at the horrible, high fat, fried meals hospitals serve to patients and have in their cafeterias! (That does include childrens' hospitals, folks!) It's one thing to choose to drive through McD's or make a frozen dinner full of sodium and fat, but when a crappy meal comes to a patient on their tray for dinner and the objective is to heal....I just never have understood it.

    November 8, 2010 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mike

      Money. Its always money. Ask your supervisors why they serve the food and I guarantee they say "its cheaper."

      November 8, 2010 at 16:19 | Report abuse |
    • dawn

      I wish the hospitals I stayed at after childbirth offered such food. Nothing but lowfat milk. I saw on "supersize me" where a McDonalds was right inside a hospital. Good thnking, because it keeps the hospital types in business. If I were a dentist, you'd better be sure I'd offer snickers, and milkyway bars to the kids on their way out the door. Or free puppies if I ran a carpet cleaning business.

      But most people are stupid and think that someone ELSE should step up to the plate and refuse to consume these things. They often think that instead of standing up to your brats and telling them NO candy, that the dentist should be BANNED from offering it, or the hospital should be banned from having a McDonalds. God America!!! GROW A PAIR!!

      November 8, 2010 at 17:00 | Report abuse |
    • ME

      So true. The worse food offenders I've ever seen are school cafeterias and hospital cafeterias and these are supposed to be educational and healthy places!

      November 8, 2010 at 23:28 | Report abuse |
  9. lastofsane

    Throughout this forum I have seen nearly every possible excuse. Everything from poor, undereducated parents who don't know what to feed their kids to stressed-out, overworked professional single parents who have no time to provide their kids with healthy meals. Not to mention the over-indulgent parents who simply "cave" to the whims of their children. The common thread among them all is that they seem to continue blame hamburger stands and the ad campaigns which they use to compete with other hamburger stands for not promoting "healthier alternatives" to that food which made them successful in the first place. if you're a parent and you haven't the education or the time to provide your children with proper nutrition, then perhaps you should review your own priorities before you begin insisting that a hamburger stand stop advertising hamburgers and instead push apple slices and carrot sticks. This outright lack of accountability is truly what's wrong with America, not the high-fat, high-calorie foods of McDonald's which, by the way, have been around for more than half a century. I am a healthy person and keep myself fit, but now and then I do find myself in the mood for a good hamburger. Not once, however, have I ever been tempted into McDonald's by a commercial advertising salads or snack wraps. All of this is utter foolishness.

    November 8, 2010 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mike

    Ok ok, so we all have the freedom to choose what we eat or whatever. So I have another question. Do I have the right to approach someone who is clearly neglecting their child by feeding them this stuff. I'm not talking about your average kids going to McDonalds every now and then, or even the overweight kids. I'm talking the morbidly obese kids who are obviously at risk. At what point does society demand change? Is there such a point?

    November 8, 2010 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ME

      I've certainly given them disgusted looks, usually not even on purpose. You can't help but recoil in horror when you see a morbidly obese child with obese parents.

      November 8, 2010 at 23:29 | Report abuse |
  11. Amanda

    It is true that the fast food industry is responsible for what they put in their food, but aren’t parents the ones responsible for what they choose to feed their kids? We need to take responsibility for what we feed our children. I urge you to cut processed food (going beyond just fast food…) out of your/your family’s diets. Anything that's been processed loses nearly all nutrients; how healthy is something with no nutritional value? While processed foods may say they contain of vitamins, fiber, etc, this means it is pumped full of SYNTHETIC forms of these- we might think we're eating well if we believe the box. Processed foods are also loaded with chemicals/¬preservati¬ves. What are they doing to our children’s bodies? They also have tons of extra sugar, salt, etc. All in all, buying processed foods from the grocery store or a kid’s meal at McDonald’s might seem cheaper than buying fresh food and making a meal, they leave you feeling less full. You will eat (and buy) more if you are eating processed food than if you make a healthy meal for your family.
    I understand that we are always trying to find the quickest, cheapest option to save time and money, but I really urge you to cut back on processed foods. Take the time to prepare a meal instead of rolling through the drive through and spend those couple extra dollars to ensure that you and your family are going to be healthy.

    November 8, 2010 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dr Bill Toth

    Garbage in = garbage out. We are what we eat. Take the time to educate our kids or we can take the time to visit them in the hospital later in life.

    November 8, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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      March 4, 2012 at 07:11 | Report abuse |
  13. mary

    When I was a kid we got special treats...One in awhile we went to a hamburger place and got the works..It was the best~!
    Now kids just expect it.. No big deal..Go to the drive though . It's quick and mom and Dad can get home and relax..No one has to go into the kitchen and spend time cooking up a meal..
    I blame the time factor on why we eat so crappy now days.
    Even if people eat at home it's some quick frozen entree, a pizza or some thing..
    We eat crap...We are putting the blame on places like McDonalds.. As if, if not for those places we would all be eating well~!! LOL

    November 8, 2010 at 17:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lastofsane

      Agreed... What strikes me as odd, however, is that over the past decade and leading up to the real estate bust, there seemed to be a great deal of emphasis placed upon building houses with bigger, better, nicer gourmet kitchens. Stainless steel appliances, island bars, granite counter tops... all state-of-the-art. Yet our bright, intelligent generation of young parents prefers to show off these great kitchens and rely on fast-food restaurants rather than use them to prepare nutritious meals. But I suppose every spare minute they have left is used in working to pay for those 'McMansions" with the gourmet kitchens. Once again, it all comes back to McDonald's.

      November 8, 2010 at 18:41 | Report abuse |
  14. ME

    This article says the "worst" meal had 973 calories. While that sounds like a lot, it can still fit easily inside a good day's healthy number of calories. The average calorie needs for adults range from about 2000-2500. Someone eating low calorie health meals for breakfast and dinner could easily splurge on this high calorie lunch every once in a while and be totally fine.

    I am a thin, petite woman with 20% body fat and 105 lbs weight and I try to eat 2300 calories a day just to maintain my weight. 500 breakfast, 1000 lunch and 800 dinner. I could have that DQ lunch every once in a while without going over my calorie budget–no problem. Any healthy person could. The problem is not the occasional fast food meal; the problem is eating too many of them.

    November 8, 2010 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dom625

      Yes, but this study was focusing on kids, not on adults. The caloric needs of children are different than those of a full-grown person, so 973 calories at one sitting is indeed quite a bit.

      November 9, 2010 at 08:29 | Report abuse |
  15. goober

    So an abundance advertising is to blame for obesity now? What happened to free will and personal responsibility? People are being compelled into buying fast food? WoW. Excuses. No one forces you to eat fast food. No one force your kids to eat fast food except you!

    November 8, 2010 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. JCizzle

    The fries in that photo look delicious, I've never seen them like that. Fries with sour cream, scallions, and tomato, I'm gonna have to try that.

    November 9, 2010 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jon

    The deadly combo needs to be harped on instead of just one of it's individual components:

    1) Bad Diet
    2) Sedentary Lifestyle (We are talking people who are so lazy they haven't taken the stairs to the 2nd floor in years)
    3) Poor Socialization (leads to cognitive deficiencies at all stages of life)

    November 9, 2010 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Lisa

    My question is why is the responsibility of the health of our children being placed solely on the fast food industry itself when it is the responsibly of the parent to make good decisions for their children about their diet, health and overall well being. Fast food restaurants offer a product and we as the consumer choose to purchase their product. I feel it is the parents place to set boundaries for their children and say no. Too often we try to place blame on others for our own decisions. Personally, I would like to be able to remain in the position to be able to make decisions for my family instead of having others make them for me. We as a society need to step up and take responsibility for the type of lifestyles we have chosen to lead. Parents need to plan better for their children so they don't have to eat out everyday. Fast food restaurants have the right to offer their product and we have the right to choose whether to eat it or to provide it to our children.

    November 10, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Amanda

    I have 4 children a 10 yr old son 7 yr old daughter & 4 yr old twin girls and they watch all the programs on tv their friends do and we drive through all the fast food restarants and the do not ask for food or the toys...
    My 2 oldest will check to see if something is organic and if i say no its not organic or it will make you gain weight they know better than to through a fit.... Their younger sisters see this and follow the lead. I once offered a mc donald's french fry and one of the twins asked me what it was.... My husband and I have been doing the very worst and hardest work of all with our kids and thats to expose them to the truth and shelter them from falling prey to toys and greasy foods....
    I couldnt agree more that this is the responsability of parents only... They are our kids we have to teach them right from wrong.
    We DO have a fighting chance with our kids regardless of how much these companies spend on marketing

    November 12, 2010 at 02:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Izzy (ccs)

    Well, I read this attical and found that most of the over more then 40% of Preschoolers LOVED to eat at fast food places. But the others like to eat at fast food places. 5th hour Mrs. K

    November 16, 2010 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Dude

    It's not surprising that americans are the fattest race on the whole planet (By Americans I'm not talking about Indians. But that's what "American" actually means). The whole problem is not junk food. Not being active and watching television for hours can also cause this. Fast food is highly expensive in my country and most people don't eat it because of the price. It sucks that every healthy food tastes awful but you gotta eat anything edible if you are not earning much money. I'm about the believe my friend's "More rich you become, more fat you become" theory.

    December 21, 2010 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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