One of my favorite things to do as a little girl was going out to lunch with my dad and three sisters every Saturday. Because we were a large family operating on a country lawyer’s budget (Mom was our “domestic engineer”), the restaurant was usually not a fancy one (there weren’t - aren’t - any Zagat-rated places in my small Illinois hometown). In fact, most of the time our destination was McDonald’s.
Fast forward 20-something years: rates of obesity have skyrocketed, unemployment has risen and thus the ability for many folks to feed home-made meals to their families has been hampered by wages not keeping up with inflation. This has led to a growing dependence upon fast-food restaurants to feed families on shoestring budgets, and while they are able to meet that consumer need, the highly processed, high-sodium and high-sugar-laden meals have long been suspected of exacerbating the increased rates of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes not just in adults, but in our children.
While there has been a reduction in sugar between the traditional Happy Meal of our childhood and of today’s, the reality is that the nutritional content of the most troublesome threats to our health are not improved:
2013 Happy Meal – Hamburger, Fries, Water And Apple Slices
Calories from Fat 160
Total Fat 17g
Saturated Fat 6g
Traditional Happy Meal – Cheeseburger, Fries And Coca-Cola
Calories from Fat 160
Total Fat 17g
Saturated Fat 6g
According to Fast Food Facts 2013 marketing report, which lists the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity as a primary source, the industry is still spending billions of dollars a year marketing to children and teens - $4.6 billion, to be exact. Compare that to $116 million used to promote fruits and vegetables, and it’s clear that it’s a David-meets-Goliath situation on our hands.
There have been some positive changes, albeit not enough for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which opines that McDonalds’ recent announcement to eliminate sugary sodas from their Happy Meals is just a first step in a very long journey to making fast-food truly healthy. However, to read the McDonald’s press release, we can see that their efforts are going beyond soda to include promoting “only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising,” and “ensure 100 percent of all advertising directed to children to include a fun nutrition or childrens well-being-message.”
Okay, Ronald McDonald and team - duly noted!
Still, display ads for Happy Meals increased 63%, to 31 million ads monthly. Three-quarters appeared on kids sites such as Nick.com, Roblox.com and CartoonNetwork.com, while according to the same report, 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. When advertising increases but nutrition does not, it makes for some questionably hollow moves on the restaurant’s part.
Another innovative-for-the-fast-food-industry idea coming from McDonald’s is that of swapping books with a nutrition theme for those toys that come with a Happy Meal. In an experiment that began two weeks ago and ends this Saturday, McDonald’s released 20 million books, written specifically for them (by an ad agency) and published by them, in their Happy Meals.
Should we be suspicious of this move as yet another marketing ploy from a business that has billions of dollars at stake? Or should we be supportive and encouraging of someone in the vilified fast-food industry FINALLY making the first move toward not just healthier advertising, but healthier content?
At Red Rabbit, we’ve had some lively discussions over this issue. A few of us are in the camp of being guardedly optimistic, the reasoning being founded in the harsh reality that many people can only afford to eat at fast-food places, and the fact that McDonald’s is making an effort in this manner means that more people are going to be exposed to more literature on healthier choices than they would otherwise. If the end result of this experiment is that of children who may never be exposed to the idea of eating right are reading these books and more like them, then these could be considered very good steps indeed. We want the eyes of children to be open so that when they go to McDonald’s (which may never change), they order the iceberg side salad with lite Italian dressing, instead of the large fries.
Then there are those of us in the other camp: no matter the positive way one can try to spin it, this is still just advertising to children to sell more sodium-and-sugar-laden Happy Meals, thinly veiled as concern for the health of our children. Again, these books are, admittedly, written and devised by an ad agency and published by McDonald’s, and not by a panel of nutritionists or public health officials - leaving one to ponder what percentage is indeed mere marketing ploy, and what is concern and acknowledgement in their part of the problem. This latest effort could then be considered akin to a beverage company adding nutrients to a sugar-laden juice drink and labeling it "healthy" or "natural.”
Regardless of healthier changes being made by any fast food venue, the consensus is to avoid them whenever possible. Food is meant to be prepared, not just consumed; it is meant to foster communication and bonding between family and friends. The more involved we are in the process of bringing food from the farm to our tables, the more we can appreciate its value as fuel for our minds and bodies, and not just as a quick fix for our taste buds.