A leading consumer interest group is warning parents that kids' meals at chain restaurants aren't hitting nutritional standards -- even those voluntarily set by the restaurant industry.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said in a new report Thursday that 97 percent of kids' meals at 34 top chains did not meet recommended standards for nutrition. Nineteen chains didn't have a single option that met the standards.
When the National Restaurant Association's voluntary Kids LiveWell program criteria was used, 91 percent of the 3,498 meal combinations assessed did not meet their benchmark. Nine chains did not have one meal that fit their standards.
"One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it's as if the chain restaurant industry didn't get the memo," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan said in a press release. "Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries, and soda."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates have doubled in young kids and tripled in adolescents over the last three decades. The percentage of children between the ages of 6 to 11 that were obese went up from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2010. For children 12 through 19, the percentages rose from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same time period.
Obese youth have higher risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems like low self-esteem and stigmatization. Children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, which puts them at risk for other kids of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, some kinds of cancer as osteoarthritis.
In order to meet CSPI's standards, the kids' meal must be below 430 calories, have no more than 35 percent calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated plus trans fats. In addition, the meal cannot have more than 35 percent added sugars by weight and no more than 770 milligrams of sodium. The group also advocated for the meal having at least half a serving of fruit or vegetables, including an item that is 51 percent or more whole grains or contain that amount of vitamins or fiber. The meal must also not include a sugar drink, with possible alternate options including water, juice or low-fat milk.
The recommendations from the National Restaurant Industry's Kids Live Well Program are similar, but increase the calories allowed to 600 calories. The industry group also wants meals to include two sources of the major food groups (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, or lower-fat dairy), and the side must fit into one of the categories.
CSPI looked at the top 50 largest restaurant chains, according to their revenue in 2009, and checked the nutritional standards between October and November 2012. Nine of them did not have children's items or meals, including Domino's Pizza, Dunkin' Donuts, 7-Eleven, Papa John's, Golden Corral, Church's Chicken, Little Caesars Pizza, Hometown Buffet/Old Country Buffet and Starbucks.
Out of the other 41 chains that did offer kids' meals, 34 had at least one meal combination and provided nutritional information so CSPI could rate them. Forty-four percent of those chains offered meals that fit both group's criteria, and 72 percent offered some type of fruit or vegetable with their kids' meal. The numbers were actually an improvement from a 2008 report, when CSPI last assessed the nutritional value of kids' meals. Back then, only 33 percent of restaurants offered healthy options, and 69 percent gave out fruits or vegetables. Saturated fat levels decreased from 54 percent to 45 percent.
"As a parent it's sometimes hard to get kids to eat healthy, but Kids LiveWell options make it easier," Anita Jones-Mueller, founder of the company Healthy Dining that works with the Kids LiveWell program, told USA Today. "It's exciting to see so many restaurants creating healthier choices because it helps parents feel good about eating out, knowing that their children have nutritious options."
Though the number of meals that hit CSPI's nutritional standards went from 1 percent to 3 percent from 2008 to 2012, overall numbers were still relatively low.
Eighty-six percent of meals had more than 430 calories, and 50 percent of the meals had more than 600 calories. Sixty-six percent of restaurants exceeded both groups' sodium standards, 47 percent went over the total fat limit, and 55 percent went over the saturated fat limit.
For the main meals in the 34 restaurants that provided information, 83 percent had fried chicken entrees, 65 percent offered burgers, 50 percent had pasta/macaroni dishes, and 45 percent served grilled cheese. Thirty-five percent had grilled chicken, which was one of the lowest-calorie options offered.
The side items didn't fare much better. About seven out of every 10 chains offered fried potatoes, but 53 percent did offer other vegetables like fresh or steamed broccoli, carrots, celery, corn, green beans or mashed potatoes as an option with kids' meals. Sixty-eight percent offered fruit as a side of fruit, with the most common items being apples, fruit cups, mandarin oranges and grapes.
Forty percent of the chains offered deserts for children, most commonly ice cream.
Seventy-eight percent of the 34 chains allowed children to select soft drinks as their beverage option. Fifty-eight percent offered fruit juices, and 40 percent allowed kids to choose non-fat or low-fat milk. Forty-three percent of the chains offered high-fat milk.
One chain that is doing well to keep children healthy, according to the report, is Subway. All eight of their Fresh Fit for Kids meals met the CSPI standards. They do not offer sugar drinks for kids' meals -- allowing kids to choose low fat milk or bottled water instead -- and offer apple slices with their kids' subs.
"Our goal has always been to provide the most nutritious, balanced kids meals in the industry and we are proud to be recognized by CSPI for achieving that goal," Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for the Subway brand, said in a press release. "As a mom and a dietitian I know that it's not easy to get kids to eat things that taste great and include essential nutrients. Our menu can make both parent and child happy."