Fast Food FACTS in Brief

In 2010, researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity issued Fast Food FACTS.  The report examined the nutritional quality of fast food menus, fast food advertising on TV and the internet, and marketing practices inside restaurants. Researchers found that the industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising to encourage frequent visits by young people to fast food restaurants, targeting children as young as two years old.

Three years after our first report - using the same methods as the original Fast Food FACTS - this report quantifies changes in the nutritional quality of fast food and how it is marketed to children and teens. These analyses focus on 18 fast food restaurants.

NUTRITION

Despite the addition of some healthy kids' meal options, less than 1% of all kids' meal combinations - 33 out of 5,427 possible meals -- met recommended nutrition standards.

  • Most restaurants offered at least one healthy side option and three-quarters increased healthy beverage options and McDonald's changed Happy Meal sides to automatically include half-portions of french fries and apples.
  • The number of possible kids' meal combinations increased 54%, but there was no change in the number of combinations that qualified as healthy meals for elementary school-age children.
  • Only 3% of kids' meal combinations met the food industry's own revised CFBAI nutrition standards or the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell standards.

Although the number of regular menu items offered increased dramatically, the proportion of healthy menu items remained the same.

  • Menu items offered by McDonald's, Subway, Burger King, and Taco Bell increased 35%.
  • Less than one-quarter of restaurants' regular menu items qualified as nutritious options for teens.
  • Restaurants continued to offer large or extra-large soft drinks (350-850 calories) and large french fries (470-610 calories).

MARKETING TO CHILDREN AND TEENS

In 2012, fast food restaurants spent $4.6 billion in total on all advertising, an 8% increase over 2009. For context, the biggest advertiser, McDonald's, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined.

Older children's total exposure to fast food TV and internet advertising declined.

  • TV advertising viewed by children ages 6 to 11 declined by 10% to 3.2 ads per day.
  • Popular child-targeted websites from McDonald's, Burger King, and Dairy Queen were discontinued.

Most fast food restaurants stepped up advertising to children, and preschoolers' exposure to TV advertising did not change.

  • In 2012, preschoolers saw 1,023 fast food ads -- 2.8 per day.
  • Three-fifths of fast food restaurants increased TV advertising to older children.
  • McDonald's display ads for Happy Meals increased 63% to 31 million ads monthly. Three-quarters appeared on kids' websites, such as Nick.com, Roblox.com, and CartoonNetwork.com.

There were some positive trends in fast food marketing to teens but restaurants continued to target them with TV and internet marketing for primarily unhealthy products.

  • TV ads viewed by teens did not change, but average calories per ad viewed declined by 16%.
  • Teens were more likely to see more TV ads for Taco Bell, Sonic, and Starbucks compared with adults.
  • Display ads on youth websites declined by more than half, from 470 million monthly ad views per month in 2009 to 210 million in 2012. However, KFC, Subway, and Starbucks more than doubled display advertising on youth websites.

Fast food marketing via mobile devices and social media popular with teens has grown exponentially. 

  • Six billion fast food ads appeared on Facebook - 19% of all fast food display advertising - including more than half of Dunkin' Donuts' and Wendy's ads.
  • Smartphone apps offer interactive features such as order functions and special offers.

Fast food restaurants continued to target black and Hispanic youth, who face higher risk for obesity and related diseases.

  • Fast food advertising spending on Spanish-language TV increased 8%. KFC and Burger King increased their spending by 35% to 41% while reducing English-language advertising.
  • Black and Hispanic youth were more likely than other youth to visit one-third or more of all fast food websites

RECOMMENDATIONS

Over the last three years, there have been some improvements to the nutritional quality of fast food, and to companies' marketing practices. However, the pace of improvement is slow and unlikely to reduce young people's overconsumption of high-calorie, nutritionally poor fast food.

Fast food restaurants should do more to improve the nutritional quality of kids' meals and regular menu items

  • Apply industry standards for healthy kids' meals to the majority of kids' meal combinations available for purchase - not a mere 3%.
  • Automatically provide healthy sides and beverages as the default kids' meals.
  • Increase the proportion of lower-calorie, healthier items on their menus and make them available at a reasonable price.

Fast food restaurants should stop marketing directly to children and teens to encourage consumption of unhealthy fast food.

  • Limit advertising on children's TV networks and third-party kids' websites to healthy kids' meals only.
  • Stop unfair marketing targeted to children, including ads that focus on promotions, not food, mobile advergame apps, and online ads that link to advergame sites.
  • Ensure that preschoolers are not exposed to fast food advertising, especially advertising on Spanish-language TV.
  • Stop targeting older children as young as age 12 with marketing for unhealthy fast food that can damage their health.
  • Establish age limits on fast food marketing to youth via social media and mobile devices that take unfair advantage of their susceptibility to peer influence and impulsive actions.
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