Study: QSRs Still Pushing Unhealthy Food To Kids

In 2012, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise "mostly unhealthy" products, and children and teens remained key audiences for that advertising, according to a new report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. 

The report, “Fast Food Facts 2013,” is a follow-up to a report released in 2010. Using the same methods, researchers examined 18 of the top QSR chains in the U.S. and documented changes in the nutritional quality of menu items, along with changes in marketing to children and teens on TV, the Internet, social media and mobile devices. 

The report, supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, highlights a few positive developments on the nutrition front, such as healthier sides and beverages in most restaurants’ kids’ meals. McDonald's, for example, made apple slices and smaller fries standard parts of its Happy Meals. Also, three-quarters of chains increased healthy beverage options. 



However, less than 1% of all kids' meal combinations (33 out of 5,427 possible meals) met school-meal nutrition standards recommended by the Institute of Medicine. Only Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell, Arby’s and Jack in the Box offered main dish options that were not too high in calories, sodium or saturated fat.

And just 3% of the kids' meals options meet the industry’s own Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) or the National Restaurant Association's (NRA's) Kids LiveWell nutrition standards.

The number of regular menu items also increased dramatically, but the proportion of healthy versus unhealthy menu items remained the same, say the researchers. (Under one-quarter of restaurants' regular menu items qualified as nutritious options for teens.) 

This is critical because most children do not consume kids' meals when they visit fast-food restaurants, according to the study: At burger restaurants, just 44% of kids under six and 31% of older children eat a kids' meal.

On the marketing front, the positives include:

*Older children's total exposure to fast food TV and Internet advertising declined. TV advertising viewed by children ages six to 11 declined by 10%.

McDonald’s and Burger King reduced TV advertising to children by 13% and 50%, respectively. Popular child-targeted Web sites from McDonald’s, Burger King and Dairy Queen were discontinued. was the only child-targeted Web site with more than 100,000 monthly unique child visitors in 2012, compared with four sites in 2009.

*While the number of fast-food TV ads viewed by teens didn't change, average calories per ad viewed declined by 16%. Percentage of calories from sugar and saturated fat also went down.

*Display ads on youth Web sites declined by more than half, from 470 million ad views per month in 2009 to 210 million in 2012. 

Highlights of the not-so-positive marketing statistics:

*Children and teens continued to see three to five fast food ads on TV every day.

*Most fast food chains stepped up advertising to children, and preschoolers' exposure to TV advertising did not change. McDonald's continued to advertise more to children than to teens or adults on TV, the only QSR chain to do so.

*Three-fifths of the chains increased TV advertising to older children. Domino's' and Wendy's' advertising rose 44% and 13%, respectively.

*McDonald's' display ads for Happy Meals increased 63%, to 31 million ads monthly. Three-quarters appeared on kids' sites such as, and

*KFC, Subway and Starbucks more than doubled display advertising on youth Web sites. Teen visitors to, and McDonald' increased by 75% or more.

*Fast food marketing via social media and mobile devices, heavily used by teens, grew exponentially. Six billion fast food ads appeared on Facebook – 19% of all fast food display advertising.

*Child-targeted advergames or branded games have gone mobile with McDonald's "McPlay" and Wendy's "Pet Play Games" mobile apps.

*Healthier kids’ meals were advertised by a few restaurants, but they represent only one-quarter of fast-food ads viewed by children.

*QSR chains increased advertising targeting black and Hispanic youth, who face higher risk for obesity and related diseases.

Chains' overall ad spending on Spanish-language TV increased 8%. KFC and Burger King increased their spending by 35% or more, while reducing English-language advertising.

Hispanic preschoolers viewed almost one fast food ad on Spanish-language TV every day, a 16% increase over three years earlier. Hispanic preschoolers saw 100 more ads than did older Hispanic children or teens. Just 5% of Spanish-language ads viewed by Hispanic children promoted kids’ meals. Black children and teens continued to see approximately 60% more fast food ads than white youth. Black and Hispanic youth were more likely than other youth to visit one-third or more of all fast food Web sites.

Overall, there were "some improvements," in QSRs' offerings and their marketing to children, but "they have been small, and the pace too slow,” contends Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center director. “Without more significant changes, we are unlikely to see meaningful reductions in unhealthy fast food consumption by young people.”

CFBAI director Elaine Kolish has stated that CFBAI's QSR participants, McDonald's and Burger King, are complying with the program's commitments. CFBAI participants' commitments focus on advertising directed to children under 12. 

Last month, in response to a different study, focused on how fast-food marketing to children compares to adult advertising, Kolish said: “Our independent monitoring shows that, as promised, [fast-food companies] have limited their child-directed advertising to meals meeting meaningful nutrition criteria. [They] also have made improvements in the kids meals they advertise to children compared to 2006, before CFBAI was launched.” 

The stated mission of the NRA's Kids LiveWell initiative, launched in July 2011, is to help parents and children select healthful menu options when dining out. Restaurants participating in the program commit to offering healthful kids’ meals that focus on increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthful fats, sugars and sodium. Kids LiveWell's nutrition criteria are based on leading health organizations’ scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. 

A full summary of the Fast Food Facts 2013 report, including the researchers' nutritional and marketing recommendations, can be downloaded on

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