WASHINGTON — With the exception of Subway, America’s top chain restaurants are falling short on meeting nutrition criteria in their meals geared toward children, according to a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The report, “Kids’ meals: Obesity on the menu,” found that at 19 of the 50 restaurant chains examined, not a single possible combination of the items offered for children met the C.S.P.I.’s nutrition standards, and 9 of the 19 chains meals fell short of the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell standards. To meet the C.S.P.I.’s criteria, children’s meals must not exceed 430 calories, must not have more than 35% of calories from fat or more than 10% of calories from saturated plus trans fat, and cannot have more than 35% added sugars by weight or more than 770 mgs of sodium.
“One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it’s as if the chain restaurant industry didn’t get the memo,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the C.S.P.I. “Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries, and soda.”
The C.S.P.I. study found that only 5% of Wendy’s 40 possible children’s meals met the C.S.P.I.’s standards, while only 20% of Burger King’s 15 meals met the criteria. Most of the meals were considered either too high in sodium or saturated fat. Meanwhile, not a single children’s meal at McDonald’s, Popeye’s, Chipotle or Hardees met the standards.
The one company that appears to be doing things right is Subway. According to the C.S.P.I., all 8 of Subway’s children’s meals, which include apple slices and apple juice, low-fat milk or bottled water, meet both the expert and industry nutrition standards. Subway does not offer soft drinks as an option with its children’s meals.
“Our goal has always been to provide the most nutritious, balanced kids meals in the industry and we are proud to be recognized by C.S.P.I. for achieving that goal,” said Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for the Subway brand. “As a mom and a dietitian I know that it’s not easy to get kids to eat things that taste great and include essential nutrients. Our menu can make both parent and child happy.”
The nutritional quality of children’s meals at chain restaurants was last reviewed by the C.S.P.I. in 2008. At that time, only 1% of the meals met the C.S.P.I.’s nutrition standards and only one-third of the restaurant chains had at least one meal that met the nutritional standards. In the most recent study, which looked at 3,498 meal combinations, 3% of the meals met the C.S.P.I.’s nutrition standards and 44% of the chains had at least one meal that met the standards.
The C.S.P.I. recommended several steps for chain restaurants to consider to improve the nutritional make-up of their children’s meals. The association encouraged chains to participate in the N.R.A.’s Kids LiveWell program, and to reformulate their children’s meals to meet those standards. Restaurants should offer more fruit and vegetable options, and make those, rather than french fries, the default sides, the C.S.P.I. noted.
Additionally, restaurant chains should offer more whole grains and remove soda or other sugar drinks from children’s menus.
“The chain restaurant industry is conditioning kids to accept such a narrow range of foods,” said Ameena Batada, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina Asheville and lead author of the report. “More chains are adding fruit, like apple slices, to their menus, but practically every chain could be adding more vegetable and whole grain options. And given the impact of sugar drinks on children’s health, those should be eliminated from kids' meals at restaurants.”
Commenting on the report, Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition and healthy living at the N.R.A., said, “Restaurants nationwide are providing innovative, healthful children’s options to their young guests. One way restaurants are offering healthful kids’ meals is through the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, which is a first-of-its-kind, voluntary initiative that helps parents and children select healthful menu options when dining out at nearly 40,000 locations nationwide. The program, now with more than 120 restaurant brands, has achieved significant momentum in just 18 short months since first launching with 19 inaugural leaders. Participating restaurants offer and promote healthful meals for children that focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthful fats, sugars and sodium. The items meet strict nutrition criteria based on leading health organizations' scientific recommendations, including the U.S.D.A. Dietary Guidelines.”