Still, more improvement needed, says CSPI

Major American chain restaurants have improved their beverage options for kids over the past eight years, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  However, the nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog says that chains owe it to families to improve children’s beverage offerings even further.

Of the 50 top restaurant chains CSPI analyzed, 38 had designated children’s menus that included beverages.  Of those, 74 percent included sugary drinks (soda, lemonade, sugar-sweetened juice drinks, and other beverages with added sugars) on their kids’ menus. 65 percent included juice, 69 percent offered low-fat or fat-free milk, 40 percent offered high-fat (whole or 2 percent) milk, and 13 percent offered bottled water or seltzer (with no added sweeteners).

The percentage of major restaurant chains that offer sugary drinks on their children’s menus has decreased significantly since 2008 (from 93 percent to 74 percent).

“CSPI is asking restaurants to do better by children and families,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan.  “Kids consume a quarter of their calories from restaurants, and sugary beverages are a top source of calories, contributing zero nutritional value and promoting obesity.”

“Restaurants have the power to change the food environment for the better and set kids up to make healthy eating—and drinking—a habit from a young age," says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan

Removing all sugary beverages from kids’ menus is no business killer for restaurants.  In fact, more than a half-dozen large restaurant chains have already committed to dropping soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks from their kids’ menus, including McDonald’s.  McDonald’s sold 21 million more low-fat and fat-free milk jugs and 100 percent apple juice boxes in the first 11 months after removing sodas from the Happy Meal section of menu boards compared to the same period a year earlier.

“Improving beverage options on children’s menus is good for kids now and for years to come,” said Wootan. “Restaurants have the power to change the food environment for the better and set kids up to make healthy eating—and drinking—a habit from a young age.”

CSPI has three recommendations for restaurants to improve beverage offerings to children, and thus children’s health.  First, chains should change default beverages to healthy options for children’s meals, such as low-fat milk or water.  Second, the group says that chains should ensure that all beverages—and foods—on the children’s menu comply with the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell nutrition guidelines.  And three, restaurants should only advertise and market to children if all the beverages and foods included on the children’s menu are healthy throughout all marketing approaches, including television, websites, in-store promotions, toy giveaways, and school-based marketing.

In addition to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Applebee’s, IHOP, and Jack in the Box have committed to removing soda and other sugary drinks from their children’s menus.  CSPI and other health groups, joined by parents, health professionals, and progressive stockholders, have urged such changes through petitions, e-mails, letters, in-person meetings, and shareholder actions.  In addition, localities such as Stockton, Davis, Perris, and Santa Clara County, California have passed laws requiring that restaurants in their communities offer healthier beverages as the default with children’s meals.