“There is no evidence that these voluntary pledges have had an industry-wide impact,” said Alyssa Moran, a doctoral student at Harvard Chan School of public health and principal author of the report. “As public health practitioners, we need to do a better job of engaging restaurants in offering and promoting healthy meals to kids.”
The report, published yesterday on the website of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, noted a particular lack of progress in steering children away from sugared soft drinks. It noted that a long list of quick-service chains no longer offered soda as the default choice in their kids’ meals, and that such industry leaders at McDonald’s now showcase low-fat milk and water as alternatives. Yet 80% of the drinks available to children today at the major restaurant chains are sugared sodas, the study concluded.
It also found that children’s intake of calories from sodas purchased in chain restaurants increased between 2012 and 2014, but a decrease in 2015 brought the average back to the 2012 level.
The stated aim of the research was to assess how much progress chains enrolled in the National Restaurant Association’s Kids Live Well initiative have made in their voluntary efforts to promote kids’ health. The report asserted the 150 participating chains had made no further progress than the brand that are not part of the 5-year-old program.
“We have just received this study and are currently reviewing it,” Leslie Shedd, the NRA’s VP of communications, said in a statement. “Kids Live Well was started to promote healthy eating among children, and we welcome any opportunity to encourage children to make healthy choices.”
The Chan School study contradicts earlier research from other sources. The report itself noted findings from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that showed the top 50 chains had increased the number of kids’ options meeting accepted nutrition standards on 34% of children’s menus by 2012. The CSPI is a frequent critic of the restaurant industry.
A report from Johns Hopkins University found that the number of calories in the items offered in restaurant chains’ meals for kids had dropped 12% by 2012.