Yale Report Gives Fast Food a Failing Grade on Nutrition While America’s Obesity Epidemic Rages

We all know that America is in the midst of a full-on obesity epidemic, right? Well, everyone except the fast-food industry.

At least it sure seems that way. A report published this week by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that the nation’s biggest fast-food chains have done little to nothing when it comes to pitching in to fight the country’s unprecedented battle of the bulge.

The 2013 Fast Food FACTS report follows up on a similar report the center published in 2010. “FACTS” is an acronym for “food advertising to children and teens score,” but the report focuses not only on the ways in which fast-food companies try to hawk their products to kids (as young as two) but also on just how healthy—or, really, unhealthy—that food is.

Take kids’ meals. True, there are more options than ever, including those Happy Meal apple slices touted by McDonald’s. In fact, at the top 12 fast-food chains surveyed by the Rudd Center, the number of kids’ meal combos swelled by 54 percent. But there was no change—repeat: change—in the number that qualified as healthy.

“As in 2010,” the report states, “less than 1 percent of all kids’ meal combinations met recommended nutrition standards: just 33 possible kids’ meals met all nutrition criteria for elementary school-age children and 15 met standards for preschoolers.”

That’s 33 out of a possible 5,427 combos.

At McDonald’s, for example, combo met all the nutrition criteria for healthy kids’ meals for either preschoolers or elementary-age kids. This, even as the chain recently garnered national attention for offering books promoting healthy eating (e.g., The Goat Who Ate Everything) in place of toys in its Happy Meals.

In terms of the adult or “regular” menus at fast-food chains, the choices there exploded as well, including an 88 percent increase in the number of snack or dessert items. No surprise—at least if you watched the rollout of things like Burger King’s bacon sundae—that more options don’t necessarily mean healthier ones. At chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, and even Subway, no more than one in five menu items could be considered nutritious.

In fact, despite the halo of healthful eating conferred by its star spokesman, Jared Fogle, Subway’s supposedly healthy offerings were less likely to meet target nutrition criteria in 2013 than in 2010.

Then there’s the story of advertising. Public health advocates have long wondered when we might hit our “Joe Camel” moment when it comes to marketing fast food to kids. That is, when it might become, as happened with cigarettes, unacceptable (and, ultimately, illegal) to market fatty, sugary, calorie-laden foods and beverages to kids. Clearly, we’re a long way from that.

In what seems like a herculean effort to maintain some sense of objectivity, the authors of the Rudd Center reports point to positive developments when it comes to how fast-food companies try to lure kids and teens. Kids ages 6 to 11, for example, are seeing 10 percent fewer ads for fast food on TV.

But Frostys, foot-long sandwiches, and Baconantor burgers(!) are still being advertised on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. And like most major companies, the fast-food giants appear to be shifting their marketing dollars to where young eyeballs are, developing kid-centric mobile apps and advertising on social media sites.

“Fast food restaurants placed six billion display ads on Facebook in 2012, 19 percent of all their online display advertising,” the report points out.

The Rudd Center report more or less mirrors the findings of similar recent studies, including one from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published in September and another from Center for Science in the Public Interest released in April.

What Next?

Related Articles