Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a new report today. It's the most comprehensive study of fast food nutrition and marketing ever conducted, and its conclusions aren't pretty.
Kids are seeing more fast food ads than ever, across a variety of media including TV, radio, websites, phone apps and Facebook. What these ads help sell is mostly high-calorie, high-sugar and high-salt food with unhealthy defaults as the side dish, and the promises made regarding improving meal content are largely window dressing. Yes, it is now possible to order healthier fast food options, but it isn't easy -- the healthier options comprise just 17 percent of the menu, and aren't promoted in the way the unhealthy choices are.
From the report's summary (emphasis is mine):
The fast food industry spent more than 4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on marketing. They are marketing to children and teens more than ever - exposure to fast food ads on TV increased by 21% for preschoolers, 34% for children, and 39% for teens (12-17) from 2003 - 2009. Marketing goes far beyond television ads. The companies use websites, banner ads, and social and mobile media to reach young people.Here are a few facts extracted from the report:
Are meals better?• Only 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations meet nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.
• Teens between the ages of 13 and 17 purchase 800 - 1,100 calories in an average fast food meal, including 30% or more of calories from sugar and saturated fat.
• At most restaurants, young people purchase one-half or more of their maximum daily recommended sodium intake in just one meal.
• At McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Taco Bell, employees automatically served french fries or another unhealthy side more than 84% of the time. A soft drink or other unhealthy beverage was served at least 55% of the time.
• Subway was the sole exception, offering healthy sides and beverages 60% of the time.Is advertising more responsible? • The average preschooler (2-5) sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children (6-11) see three-and-a-half; and teens see almost five. Web-based targeting starts as young as age 2 through websites such as McDonalds' Ronald.com.
• McDonald's and Burger King have created sophisticated advergames and virtual worlds to engage children (e.g., McWorld.com, HappyMeal.com, and ClubBK.com).
• McDonalds' 13 websites get 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors each month.
• Nine restaurant Facebook pages have more than one million fans, and Starbucks' page boasts more than 11.3 million.
• Eight of the fast food chains have smartphone apps to reach young consumers anytime, anywhere.Fast food marketers target vulnerable groups • Hispanic preschoolers see 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads each year and McDonald's is responsible for one-quarter of young people's exposure to Spanish-language fast food advertising.
• African American children and teens see at least 50% more fast food ads than their white peers. McDonald's and KFC specifically target African American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites, and banner ads.
In 2006, in response to growing criticism, the major fast food companies pledged to advertise only "better-for-you" choices to young kids. This report takes a detailed look at the results of these voluntary efforts so far, and finds that although some changes have occurred, the default meal served and promoted by fast food restaurants is still much the same -- unhealthy and fattening -- and marketers are busier than ever converting the young into loyal consumers.
The report concludes with recommendations : It calls for binding standards for child-targeted marketing, it urges companies to reformulate menu items, and above all it advocates emphasizing the healthier, lower calorie options and making them the default choice for kids' meals.
If you're part of the 84 percent of parents who take their kids to a fast food joint at least once a week, the report has a "best and worst" chart of kids' fast food meals you can consult with before you go. Can you guess who comes on top?
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