New Study Suggests Fast Food Companies Should Limit Advertising to Children

FriesFriesMichelle McCaffrey says her two young boys, ages 1 and 3, don't know what fast food is.

"They haven't ever had it, and we stream shows (online instead of watching TV), so they haven't ever seen a commercial either," the Pennsylvania mom said.

McCaffrey's kids may be in the minority.

Researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity have found that on average, children between the ages of 2 and 5 see more than 1,000 advertisements for fast food each year. In 2012, the average U.S. preschooler viewed 2.8 fast food ads on TV every day, according to "Fast Food FACTS 2013," a new report released by the Yale Rudd Center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Related: Are you making these 3 food mistakes?

All that exposure to fast food marketing is cause for concern because "preschoolers are not too young to be influenced by marketing," said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center and co-author of the report. "Young children can often recognize logos before they can even read."

The report calls for companies to limit advertising fast food to children and to stop targeting preschoolers especially through Spanish-language TV commercials which have become increasingly visible to Hispanic children in recent years.

"Most advertising promotes unhealthy regular menu items and often takes unfair advantage of young people's vulnerability to marketing, making it even tougher for parents to raise healthy children," said Jennifer Harris, the Rudd Center's director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the report.

Though major fast food chains have added healthier menu options--including apple slices and bottled water--in recent years, researchers found that very few kids' meals actually meet nutrition criteria for children. Just 3 percent of more than 5,400 kids' meals studied met the fast food industry's own standards on sodium, calories and sugar in children's food. For preschoolers specifically, less than one-half of 1 percent of the meals met stricter nutritional standards set by the Institute of Medicine.

"Finding a meal at a fast food restaurant that meets nutrition recommendations for preschoolers is nearly impossible," Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that if you must get fast food, your best bet to find a healthy meal for your little one is at the Subway sandwich chain. Wherever you go, she added, order milk or water for your child to drink and ask for apple slices as a side instead of fries.

McDonald's produced 266 ads targeting preschoolers in 2012, the most of any fast food company. The franchise giant said in a statement to BabyZone that the company "remains committed to responsibly communicating with children and their families."

McDonald's said that all the foods advertised to children under 12 meet industry nutrition standards and that, since January 2013, all of their advertisements have included " a nutrition or active lifestyle message."

Yum Brands, the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, did not respond to calls for comment. Yum ranked second to McDonald's for total fast-food ads targeting preschoolers in 2012, according to the Yale Rudd report.

Whether their kids are influenced by food commercials or not, parents of little ones, at least, can take comfort in knowing that they have control over whether their tots nosh on burgers and fries from their local fast food joint.

As for when their children are older? Moms like Jillian Stannard, who is raising four kids in Arizona, say they're working to ensure their children learn how to make smart decisions regarding food and nutrition.

"I teach my kids about the food groups and have discussions on the importance of each and help initiate good food choices," Stannard said.

Her children, now ages 7 through 11, do eat fast food on occasion.

"I don't feel it's best to eliminate any foods or label any foods 'good' or 'bad,'" she said, "but to teach moderation and healthy living habits as a whole."

-By Alice Gomstyn

For 10 healthy foods to get toddlers hooked on, visit BabyZone!

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