A recent report by The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed many of the kids’ menus at fast food chains across the US found a whopping 97% of the meals offered fall short of the CSPI’s nutritional criteria. While alarming, this should also come as no surprise. Fast food and fast casual restaurants rely heavily on highly processed ingredients that are easy to store and prepare, and abandon the thought of nutritional value all together.
What is most shocking however is that even when evaluated by the standards of the National Restaurant Associations (the primary lobbying group for restaurants), a staggering 91% of meals do not meet their suggested standards either. While it is true that most major chains have added apples and milk as alternatives to their kids’ menus, the industry appears to be taking the ‘let’s do as little as possible and talk as loud as we can about it’ approach.
There is little altruism at play when adding these improved options to the kids’ menu. Take McDonald’s Apple Dippers with Low Fat Caramel Sauce for example. Instead of offering wholesome apples as a sidekick for kids’ meals, McDonald’s serves a small package of surgically peeled apples accompanied by a sugar laden dipping sauce to sit along side burgers or nuggets. This is surely an upgrade to the standard pouch of fries, but the high sugar content of the dipping sauce virtually negates the majority of gains from the swap. The same can be said about replacing soda with milk drinks loaded with added sugar. Yes it is an upgrade, but not by much.
If restaurants truly want to support and promote healthy nutrition for children, there is much more that can be done. Why are salads or grilled chicken sandwiches rare members of the kids’ menus? Why are there no vegetable sides available? Why should a child’s diet be restricted to chicken nuggets and burgers?
Little progress was seen in the CSPI’s last evaluation from 2008 to present. The current climate shows little reason to believe much will change over the next 5 years.