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."

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