(CBS) Kids like junk food, in spite of how bad it is for them. Places like McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King know that, perhaps all too well. These days, Children as young as age 2 are seeing more fast food ads than ever before, and restaurants rarely offer parents the healthy kids' meal choices, The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reports in a study released Monday.
In what is billed as the most comprehensive study of fast food nutrition and marketing ever conducted on the nation's 12 largest fast food chains, researchers examined the calories, fat, sugar, and sodium in more than 3,000 kids' meal combinations and 2,781 menu items. They also looked at how the $4.2 billion spent on advertising by these companies in 2009.
The results are disturbing. Out of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations, only 12 meet the researchers' nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children. Teens ages 13-17 purchase 800-1,100 calories in an average fast food meal, roughly half of their recommended total daily calories.
Subway and Burger King offered the ten best kids meal options, with Subway's Veggie Delite Sandwich on Wheat Bread with apple slices and apple juice coming in at a scant 285 calories. McDonald's, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, KFC, Sonic, and, yes, Burger King too, all offered the worst kids meals, each having an option at over 750 calories. The worst kids meal offering, the study found, is a Dairy Queen Original Cheeseburger with French Fries, Mountain Dew and a Chocolate Dilly Bar, all of which comes in at a whopping 973 calories.
The way in which kids are offered fast food does not help, either. The study reports that most fast food restaurants have at least one healthy side dish and beverage option for a kids' meal, but the healthy options are rarely offered as the default. For example, even though McDonald's and Burger King show only healthy sides and beverages in child-targeted advertising, the restaurants automatically serve french fries with kids' meals at least 86 percent of the time, and soft drinks at least 55 percent of the time.
Additionally, relentless marketing to kids has paid off for the companies, the study reports. Forty percent of children ages 2-11 ask their parents to go to McDonald's at least once a week, and 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day. 84 percent of parents report taking their child ages 2-11 to a fast food restaurant at least once in the past week.
Fast food chains also target Hispanic and African-American kids. Hispanic preschoolers see 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads each year. African American children and teens see at least 50 percent more fast food ads than their white peers. McDonald's and KFC, in particular, specifically target African American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites, and banner ads.
"Our results show that the fast food industry's promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough," said study co-author Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director and co-founder of the Rudd Center, in a press release. "If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it."