Study: Most Fast Food Meals Provide Inadequate Nutrition for Children

November 10/Toronto/The Toronto Star --  Only 12 meals of more than 3,000 combinations at major fast-food restaurants provide adequate nutrition for children ages 2 to 5, a new U.S. study shows.

About 15 of the meals provide adequate nutrition for older children, say researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who examined menu items at eight major restaurant chains for their total calories, sodium, fat and sugar content in a study of nutrition and advertising tactics.

"Most of the restaurants have a healthy side and a healthy beverage that can go with the kids' meals, but the main items have a lot of saturated fat and a lot of sodium that make them not good choices," says lead researcher Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.

Harris and her team presented their findings at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Denver.

Subway offers the best meal choice for kids, according to the study. A veggie delite sandwich (on wheat bread with no cheese) along with apple slices and a 100% juice has 285 calories. The meal contains 295mg of sodium and zero calories from saturated fat.

Researchers did not rank the worst meal options because "there were too many contenders." On the list, however, is a Taco Bell bean burrito, which when combined with a side of cinnamon twists and a Mountain Dew Baja Blast drink, has 760 calories, 1,530mg of sodium and 284 calories from sugar. KFC's popcorn chicken with a side biscuit, string cheese and Mountain Dew has 840 calories, 1,610mg of sodium and 99 calories from saturated fat.

Both meals have more sodium than Health Canada recommends for children under 9: the agency suggests those aged 1-3 do not consume more than 1,000mg of sodium a day. Four to 8-year-olds should not exceed 1,200mg, and children over 9 should not exceed 1,500mg.

Although fast-food restaurants usually offer healthy side options and drinks for kids, the default choice is almost always unhealthy, like French fries and pop, Harris says. KFC, Taco Bell and Dairy Queen do not offer plain milk or juice at all, the study says.

"We found that parents were more likely to buy the kids meal for ... their preschoolers than they were for their older children," she says. "Preschoolers should only be eating about 420 calories in a lunch or dinner and most of those meals had about 600."

Depending on their activity level, children ages 2-5 should consume between 1,100-1,650 calories per day, recommends Health Canada.

The study also noted the effect of fast-food marketing aimed at kids. Some 40% of children ages 2-11 ask their parents to eat at McDonald's at least once a week, the study says, while 15% of preschoolers expressed an interest in going every day.

These statistics are not surprising, Harris says, because the average preschooler sees about three advertisements for fast food every day. Kids aged 6-11 see three and a half.

"We want to educate parents and educate legislators about what is happening," Harris says. "Restaurants aren't going to listen to us but they are going to listen to their customers if they demand better food and less marketing."

In addition to Subway, Taco Time, KFC, Dairy Queen and McDonald's, the study also reviewed meals from Wendy's, Sonic and Burger King.

From the November 22, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition