Less Than 1% of Fast Food Kids' Meals Are Healthy

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released Fast Food Facts 2013 on Tuesday, an update to their 2010 study regarding how fast food companies target children and teens. And the results -- especially if you've been reading this site -- are pretty much in line with what we've come to expect from fast food companies: They are targeting kids.

But the big takeaway from the report -- at least, in terms of attention paid by news organizations -- is that less than 1% of kids' meals are healthy. (Which is certainly an eye-catcher of a headline. Just look above and see how dramatic it looks!) But delving into the stats a bit actually shows a less troubling picture.

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First, let's look at the methodology to find out exactly where that 1% comes from. To get there, researchers analyzed some 5,427 kids' meals from 18 different fast food chains. Right there, you may begin to sense a bit of a disconnect, seeing as there are not really over 300 kids' meals at every chain. Instead, what they're looking at is "options" for kids' meals. For instance, in that Chicken McNugget meal, you could substitute apples for fries, or a water instead of a soda, or maybe certain sauces that are lower in caloric content. That kind of thing. Of those thousands of options, there are only 33 combinations deemed healthy.

Now, this clarification isn't meant to condemn the process. But it doesn't really look at the reality of ordering fast food.

Let's say a meal has three options for sides: Fries, onion rings, or sliced apples. Two unhealthy options versus a single healthy one. If you've ever been in line at McDonald's, you know that the three options aren't necessarily weighed the same. Really, it comes down to whether the consumer wants this meal to be healthy or not. And that choice is really between two options (fried versus fruit). No one's in the mindset of ordering sliced apples when, at the register, the option of onion rings as a side makes them change their mind. By that point, they've already made their choice to order healthy or not. In the study, then, what's really a binary choice is looked at as a multiple choice. This small, unintentional gaming of the numbers gives that damning "less than 1%" number a little less impact.

Next up, is just what the term "healthy" means. For their standard, the researchers used the
nutritional guidelines put together in 2009 by the Institute of Medicine. You can click over if you'd like more specifics, but here's an example of one of their recommendations for lunch:

Fruit and Vegetables: 3/4 - 1 cup of vegetables plus 1/2 - 1 cup of fruit per day.

You're certainly not going to find that fruit and vegetable composition in most kids' meals, which is troubling. But that's not say those options aren't there if consumers want them. Another finding from the report:

Eleven out of 12 of the restaurants with kids' meals had at least one option for a side dish that the Rudd Center considered "healthy," such as sliced apples, bananas, fruit cups, applesauce, green beans, corn or salads.

Read that again: "Eleven out of 12" fast food places have healthy options. That, actually, is news that should be highlighted. If you want to be healthy at a fast food place, you actually can now! The options are there! The food revolution is succeeding!

Which is not to say the report is all good news -- even the above unpacking is more in the "not all that bad" category than the "good" one -- or that fast food companies somehow deserve our praise. The big thing that still needs to be fretted over is the fact that fast food companies continue to bombard kids with ads:

While the youngest kids were seeing fewer TV ads, older kids and teens still saw about three to five fast food advertisements on television every day. Appeals to teens on social media also surged, and while children saw more advertisements for healthier fast food options, these made up only a quarter of the fast food ads viewed by these kids, and only 1% of kids' meals at these chains met healthy nutritional standards.
You can make an argument that kids are now more skeptical than ever, and are able to look at ads through a more sophisticated, less trusting pair of eyes than any previous generation. But that runs smack-dab into the implicit argument that being bombarded with an advertising message does have an effect: If it didn't work, they wouldn't do it.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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