CSPI Report Says 97% of Kids’ Meals Fail Nutrition Standards

WASHINGTON—A new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) investigating the types of children’s menu items and the nutritional quality of children’s meals at the largest restaurant chains in the United States, found 97% of kids’ meals failed to meet nutrition standards.

According to CSPI, fried chicken fingers, burgers, French fries and sugar drinks continue to dominate the kids’ meal landscape, with 97% of the nearly 3,500 meal possibilities not meeting CSPI’s nutrition criteria for 4- to 8-year-olds. Only Subway’s Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI’s nutrition criteria. Subway is the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugar drinks as an option with its kids’ meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water along with apple slices with all of its kid-sized subs.

“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 CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan.  “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.”

To meet CSPI’s nutrition criteria, kids’ meals must not exceed 430 calories, more than 35% of calories from fat, or more than 10% of calories from saturated plus trans fat. Meals that meet CSPI’s criteria cannot have more than 35% added sugars by weight nor more than 770 milligrams of sodium. The criteria require meals to make a positive nutritional contribution either by providing at least half a serving of fruit or vegetable, including an item that is 51% or more whole grain, or including specified levels of vitamins or fiber. CSPI’s criteria exclude sugar drinks in favor of water, juice or low-fat milk.  The National Restaurant Association’s standards are similar, but allow more calories.

Of the top 50 chains, nine (18%) did not have dedicated children’s menu items or meals. Of the 41 chains with children’s items, 34 (83%) offered children’s meal combinations and provided adequate information for nutrition analyses. CSPI assessed the nutritional quality of all possible children’s meal combinations against a set of standards developed by a panel of nutrition and health experts, and against NRA’s Kids LiveWell standards.

Of the 3,498 meal combinations, 97% do not meet the expert nutrition standards for children’s meals and 91% do not meet the NRA’s Kids LiveWell standards. Nineteen of the restaurant chains offering children’s meals (56%) do not have one meal that meets the expert nutrition standards and nine chains (26%) do not have one meal that meets the Kids LiveWell standards.

CSPI also assessed how the nutritional quality of children’s meals has changed over time, comparing the nutritional quality of the meals now to the results of a similar study it conducted in 2008. The overall percentage of meals that met the nutrition standards increased since 2008, from 1% to 3%. The percentages of meals meeting the calorie and sodium limits increased and the percentage meeting the saturated fats limit decreased. More restaurants offer non-soft drink beverage and fruit options, but soft drinks and fried potatoes are still more common options on children’s menus.

The kids’ food and beverage market in the United States represents over $ 10 billion worth of opportunity. But, whether it’s designing a healthier beverage, choosing the right color or flavor, or pleasing picky kids and pickier parents, designing products for the younger set is not exactly child’s play. Check out the free Kids’ Foods and Beverages Digital Issue from Food Product Design that focuses on formulating foods and beverages for children and teens, providing information that will help product designers corner the market for this important demographic.

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