When a Michigan grandfather found a marijuana pipe in a take-out bag from Burger King in July, the offering might have been the least healthy kid’s meal ever served by a fast-food restaurant. But a new report from health policy experts on food marketed to children suggests the regular fare might not be much better.

In analyzing the top 18 fast-food restaurants in the United States, including Burger King, researchers from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that less than one percent of meals marketed toward children meet national nutritional guidelines set by the Institute of Medicine. Only three percent met fast-food industry guidelines for nutrition. In real numbers, only 33 kids' meals of a possible 5,400 combinations met the guidelines.

Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center director, told reporters fast-food chains have failed to meet promises to improve nutritional standards for food marketed toward children, as the obesity rate—and associated illnesses—continues to rise in America.

“There were some improvements, but they have been small, and the pace too slow,” said Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center director. “Without more significant changes, we are unlikely to see meaningful reductions in unhealthy fast food consumption by young people.”

Children And Teens Make Fast Food Dietary Staple
Some 42 percent of teenagers visit a fast-food restaurant every day. CC By 2.0

On the bright side, some restaurants now offer healthier sides and beverages with kids’ meals, though they fail to include those offerings in marketing promotions directed toward children. Among key findings, researchers say children 6-11 years of age saw 10 percent fewer fast-food ads on television than in previous years but were still exposed to 3-5 per day. Although fast-food companies advertised their healthier fare, three-quarters of their advertising promoted the less healthy items.

And in a negative turn, researchers found that Spanish-language advertising directed toward Hispanic preschoolers—a crowd at high risk for obesity—jumped by 16 percent compared to English-language advertising directed toward others.

Moreover, the downward trend in television advertising might simply represent a migration from one platform to another, as advertising on social media and mobile devices climbed exponentially, says Jennifer Harris, the Center’s director of marketing initiatives.

“Most fast food restaurants stepped up advertising to children and teens,” Harris said. “Most advertising promotes unhealthy regular menu items and often takes unfair advantage of young people’s vulnerability to marketing, making it even tougher for parents to raise healthy children.”

Although some public health experts might cite personal choice, justifying an occasional foray into fast food, Harris asserts that one-third of American children ages 6-11 and 41 percent of teenagers consume some type of fast food. For many kids, fast food is an everyday dietary staple, shaping their physical and mental growth.

On days that include at least one visit to a fast-food restaurant, children on average consume 126 more calories while teenagers consume 310 more calories per day. Aside from the calorie count, dietary intake shifts from fruits and vegetables to increased saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.

Below is a video uploaded to YouTube from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity: