Fast-food restaurants are stepping up efforts to market unhealthy food products to children and toddlers, according to a study by Yale University.
It said efforts by the industry to regulate itself have failed and urged government to declare children a protected group and stop marketing efforts that are fuelling child obesity.
“What we found in the marketing data is a staggering amount of fast-food advertising that starts when children are as young as two years old,” said Jennifer Harris, of the university’s Rudd Center for Food Policy &Obesity.
Harris and colleagues spent a year studying 12 big fast-food chains; analyzed the calories, fat, sugar and sodium in menu items and kids’ meal combinations; and studied what children and teens ordered.
The report (available at www.fastfoodmarketing.org) finds the industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on marketing and advertising on TV, the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications.
“Despite pledges to improve their marketing practices, fastfood companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids,” Harris said. “Today, preschoolers see 21 per cent more fast-food ads on TV than they saw in 2003, and somewhat older children see 34 per cent more.”
McDonald’s Corp. has 13 websites, attracting 365,000 unique child visitors under age 12 every month. One, ronald.com, specifically targets preschoolers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of American adults and 15 per cent of children are overweight or obese. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is above 30 per cent.
In 2007, McDonald’s and other large U.S. food and drink companies pledged to adopt stricter controls on advertising to children under 12.
“Most restaurants will say that they have added healthier choices to their menus in recent years,” said Yale’s Marlene Schwartz, who worked on the study. “In most cases you have to work very hard to get a healthy side or drink in a fastfood restaurant. You have to know it exists and you have to ask for it.”
Burger King said it “has strengthened its commitment in this area since 2007 by enhancing its nutrition criteria for advertised Kids Meals,” including lowered sodium. McDonald’s said it had kept its promises, including advertising a 375-calorie four-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal that comes with low-fat milk.
The researchers found that teenagers purchased 800 to 1,100 calories, or half a day’s worth, in an average visit. Yale’s Kelly Brownell said state and local governments can rein in the marketing behaviour of the restaurants, pointing to San Francisco’s recent law that cracks down on giving away toys in children’s meals.