• Only 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations meet nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.
• At McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Taco Bell, employees automatically served French fries or another unhealthy side more than 84 percent of the time. A soft drink or other unhealthy beverage was served at least 55 percent of the time.
• Snacks and desserts often marketed directly to teens contain as many as 1,500 calories, which is five times more than the American Dietetic Association's recommendation of a 200- to 300-calorie snack for active teens.
• McDonald's and Burger King have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children, but children ages six to 11 saw 26 percent more ads for McDonald's in 2009 compared to 2007. The increase for Burger King was 10 percent.
• African American children and teens see at least 50 percent 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.
There is no longer doubt that children and teens need protection. Marketing of both brands and foods is relentless and the nation is paying a terrible price. The industry has had time to prove itself trustworthy, and government can look the other way only so long. Children's health and well-being are essential to the future vitality of the country and their erosion by some food industry practices must be stopped.
The fast food industry can do several things to help. One is to steer people toward healthier items, for instance offering fruit and milk as the default choices in kids' meals rather than fries and sugared drinks. Posters inside restaurants can promote healthier items. Healthier foods can be priced more attractively and deals that encourage purchase of large burgers, servings of fires, and sugared beverages can end.
Most important is for companies to remove children and teens from the list of groups to be recruited as loyal customers. It seems unlikely that industry will do so voluntarily—there is simply too much money at stake. More weak and ineffective promises from industry will hurt more than help. Charlie Brown kept hoping Lucy would hold the football in place. Government can keep hoping that industry will make meaningful changes, or it can step in.
There is much government can do. It has the authority to restrict marketing aimed at children and also has sway over what goes into food (for example, a number of cities in the U.S. and the entire country of Denmark have banned trans fats in restaurant foods). It is only a matter of time before government exercises this authority, driven by grave concern over rising health care costs, recognition that children need protecting, and legislators responding to public outrage as people learn just what industry is doing. Children's health is not something to be auctioned off to big food companies.
The full report and a four-page synopsis are available at http://www.FastFoodMarketing.org.