About five years ago, the American National Restaurant Association teamed up with Healthy Dining to create the Kids LiveWell program. To implement the objectives of the Kids LiveWell initiative, 42,000 restaurant locations nationwide committed to providing families with a growing selection of healthful children’s menu choices when dining out, with the menus requiring that at least one meal and one other item on the menu fall under proper nutritional guidelines.

A study conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, however, found no substantial health improvements in the menu offerings. What is more, the amount of sugar in beverage options for children appeared to be alarmingly high.

The new study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and was the first of its kind to examine trends in the nutritional content of children’s meals among US restaurant chains, at a time when many were transitioning towards healthier menu choices.

The researchers employed data acquired from the nutrition census MenuStat, and looked into trends in the nutrient content of 4,016 beverages, main courses, side dishes, and desserts offered on children’s menus in 45 of the nation’s top 100 fast food, fast casual, and full-service restaurant chains between 2012 and 2015. Out of the total number of restaurant chains, fifteen were Kids LiveWell partakers.

It was found that neither group showed substantial improvement in the number of calories, saturated fat, or sodium in menu offerings for children over the first three years after the launch of the Kids LiveWell project in 2011. Children’s desserts had almost as many calories and roughly twice the amount of saturated fat as the main course, while the average children’s entree far exceeded recommendations for sodium and saturated fat.

In addition, eighty percent of children’s beverage options were sugary drinks, and this even though individual restaurants had vowed to gradually cut them out. The study also showed that whenever restaurant owners excluded soda from the menus, they tended to replace it with flavored milk and sweetened teas.

“This study highlights the importance of monitoring restaurant commitments over time, both to hold the industry accountable to their pledges, and to assess whether further improvements are made down the road,” said to Olive Oil Times lead author Alyssa Moran, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School.

Asked why no actual progress has been made regarding the quality of kids’ menus, Moran answered that this is mainly an accountability issue. To participate in Kids LiveWell, restaurants are only required to offer one meal and one other item that meet certain nutritional requirements. Although this is a step in the right direction, restaurants can get credit for participating by making only very minimal changes.

“Modifying the program to require that all kids’ menu items meet nutritional standards, and offering guidelines for healthy beverages would likely have a bigger impact. With that said, many of the restaurants chains in our study have thousands of locations nationwide and may just be slow to adopt voluntary pledges, rather than resistant to change. Kids deserve foods that taste good and provide the nutrients they need to grow and develop into healthy adults, and restaurants are in a great position to make those types of foods available,” continued Moran.

The scientist also stressed that there needs to be more collaboration between chefs, foodservice executives, and nutrition scientists to come up with innovative, financially viable solutions, citing a program called Menus of Change, which was created by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health, and which seeks to do just that.

“Local governments can also play a role in connecting restaurants with public health experts. In Philadelphia, the Department of Public Health worked with Chinese take-out restaurant owners to reduce salt in their foods by providing training from professional chefs and by working with distributors to offer lower sodium ingredients,” the lead author of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study reported.

“These types of programs can work, especially if restaurants feel there is a demand for healthier options from their customers. So, there’s also a role for parents to play, in telling restaurants they want healthier options for their kids!”

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