In what is the most comprehensive analysis of fast food nutrition and marketing to date, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a study Monday indicting fast food restaurants for aggressive marketing campaigns targeted to youth and other vulnerable groups, and a lack of readily available healthy options on their menus.

In a telephone briefing on Monday, the authors of the study discussed why their research is so important. They cited statistics compiled over the past year, which show that one-third of U.S. children and teens eat fast food every day, accounting for 16 to 17 percent of their daily caloric intake. "Eating at fast food restaurants is ingrained in our culture. That's why the nutritional quality of these meals is so important," Marlene Schwartz, co-author of the study said on Monday. Jennifer Harris, lead author of the study added that they uncovered how the barrage of fast food advertising has made kids think that this kind of food is "normal and expected." Harris said:
"Kids think that they should be able to eat McDonald's all the time and this has a direct effect on obesity."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. The childhood obesity rate is above 30 percent in some states.

The researchers found that the average preschooler saw 2.8 TV ads per day for fast food, children saw 3.5, and teens saw 4.7. The ads are not limited to TV alone - children and teens are also viewing ads on-line, on the radio, and with in-store promotions and signs.

Indeed, the $4.2 billion dollars spent in 2009 on advertising by the fast food industry is working. The researchers said that 40 percent of parents report that their children ask to go to McDonald's at least once a week and 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go every day. Another finding concludes that 84 percent of parents take their child to a fast food restaurant at least once a week while 66 percent reported going to McDonald's in the past week.

According to Schwartz, part of the problem is that the current generation of parents is the first group to have grown up with fast food advertisements. The researchers said that the parents' exposure to marketing makes them think it "normal" to take their children to eat at fast food restaurants as well.

The study also found that the industry specifically targets teens and minority youth more often and with less healthy items. African American youth saw at least 50 percent more fast food ads on TV in 2009 than their white peers. The researchers said that African Americans were also exposed to more websites and banner ads. "KFC and McDonald's specifically market to African Americans through what they watch," lead author Harris said. "We also found that Hispanic children, and especially preschoolers, are seeing a lot of ads on Spanish TV, particularly for McDonald's."

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center said this is particularly alarming since these are the populations most at-risk for obesity and diabetes. "The disproportionate marketing to these groups is concerning," Brownell said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than for white Americans, and the prevalence of obesity amongst the nation's Hispanic American population is 21 percent higher than their white peers.

Children are clearly eating more fast food than they should be and the authors hope their research will help to devise strategies to curb this trend. "You can try education, but that doesn't seem to be working, so that's not the answer," Brownell said. "Restricting or curtailing practices is something we need to do." Brownell referred to the ordinance passed last week in San Francisco that only allows restaurant meals to include a toy when the meals meets certain nutritional standards and criteria. He hopes that other states and local jurisdictions will take similar actions.

When asked what parents could do, lead author Harris said, "The only way to control what kids are seeing is to turn off the TV. No matter what's on, you're going to see a lot of fast food ads."

The tricky part of the debate revolves around the First Amendment. While the authors of the study would like to see advertisements to children and other vulnerable groups curtailed, corporations have the right to advertise. And while the fast food restaurants have pledged to offer healthier menu options, this doesn't seem to be affecting what people are eating. The study found that just 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers and 15 met nutrition criteria for older children. "You have to work hard to get a healthy side and drink with kids meals," co-author Schwartz said. "You have to know it exists and you have to ask for it."

These findings come on the heels of other shocking news released last week that the incidence of diabetes has reached an all-time high in Los Angeles County. The Department of Public Health report shows an increase from six-and-a-half to nine percent among adults between 1997 and 2007, for a total of 650,000 people with the disease. In addition, obesity rates rose from 14 to 22 percent, or to more than one in every five adults.

Schwartz, who along with her colleagues spent more than a year compiling this information told reporters, "All of this is really just the tip of the iceberg."

About the author

Kristin Wartman is a holistic nutrition educator, baker, and writer living in Brooklyn. She writes about cooking, eating and the history and politics of traditional, real foods. Kristin has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is certified as a holistic nutrition educator from Bauman College in Berkeley, California.