The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Fast Food Kids’ Meals

Fast Food Kids’ Meals

Health and Wellness

January 25, 2009

Only three percent of kids’ meals offered at fast food restaurants meet federal dietary guidelines for nutrient quality, says researchers at Michigan State University and Baylor College of Medicine. Their recent study is the first to examine the nutrient quality of such meals in a chief U.S. metropolitan market.

Researchers assessed the nutritional quality of kids’ meals offered by major fast food companies using standards delineated by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Each meal was analyzed for items like total energy, fat, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, added sugars, protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C.

Lunches that met all NSLP criteria offered a side of fruit plus milk and were mostly deli-sandwich-based. These meals contained about one-third the fat, one-sixth the added sugars, twice the iron and three times the amount of vitamin A and calcium as those meals that did not meet the criteria. The remaining 97% were more than one and a half times more energy dense. Several of these meals contained fried potatoes and a sweetened beverage.

Chicken-based meal combos accounted for 51% of the meals that did not met NSLP guidelines. Many of those meals were fried. Twenty-eight percent of meals not meeting the guidelines were burger-based. On the flip side, bean burrito meals contained high amounts of fiber and deli-sandwiches with cheese, fruit and milk were high in calcium.

While most meals analyzed contained adequate protein, more than one-half exceeded recommendations for sodium. Average iron from kids’ meal combos was low. Fiber was low too. Fat fared better, though. More than 30% of the meals provided fewer than 30 percent of their calories from fat. More than 66% provided less than 10% of their calories from saturated fat.

“We did see some surprises in our study. There were more healthful choices available than we would’ve first thought,” says Dr. Sharon L. Hoerr, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University. “However, there are many improvements to be made. For example, with the fiber content on most meals coming in very low, the fast food industry needs to make an effort to include more whole grains.”

The diet quality of kids’ meals offered at fast food restaurants warranted study, says Hoerr, because nearly 25% of children aged four to eight consume some type of fast food daily. Also of concern are rising obesity numbers and the trend for kids to consume more calories out of the house. Clearly, fast food has a significant role to play in overall nutrition.

“My co-authors and I would like to see the fast food industry making an effort to make kids’ meals healthier. One way they can do this is by making the default choice a healthy choice. Small modifications, like a change from fries to fruit, can make a world of difference,” she says.

Hoerr points out that the results of this study are actually somewhat encouraging. Since fast food chains are not required to meet NSLP standards, the fact that even a tiny percentage made the grade suggests that a nutritional reformulation of kids’ meals is doable – and doable in a way that is tasty to younger eaters.

“We want to be a nation with freedom of choice. But we also have to be able to choose things that are healthy and nutritious. In this case, palatable, healthy options have to become available to us.”

FDA regulations require restaurants to provide nutrition information only if they make a health or nutrition claim. That said, the majority of fast food companies analyzed for this study publically provided their nutritional information. Meals were examined at Arby’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, KFC, McDonald’s, Sonic, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Whataburger in the Houston, Texas market.