Could New York’s ‘Healthy Happy Meals’ start a global trend?

  • AFP
  • Updated: Sep 03, 2015 22:33 IST
According to a new study from researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center, legislation to raise the nutritional value of fast food restaurant meals marketed to children, such as McDonald’s Happy Meals, could have a wide enough impact to reduce calories, fat, and sodium. (Tumblr Photo)

With an eye to improving fast food meals marketed to children from a nutritional standpoint, New York City Council member Benjamin J Kallos has proposed a bill -- that could become law -- whose impact could be significant, according to researchers who conducted a new study on the potential outcome.

The proposed bill would require that meals aiming to please kids with toys and cartoon characters must include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain.

Furthermore, the meals would be limited to 500 calories or less with fewer than 35% of calories from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat, less than 10% from added sugars and less than 600 milligrams of sodium.

Members of City Council in New York City are currently considering the bill, which is similar to a new law recently passed in California.

To assess the potential public health impact of the bill, the research team worked with receipts they collected in 2013 and 2014 from 358 adults, which represented purchases for 422 children at fast food chains Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's -- all three of which market kids' meals -- in New York City and New Jersey.

On average, adults purchased 600 calories per child, and 36% of the calories came from fat, according to the study, which was published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

One third of the children selected kids' meals and 98% of kids' meals did not meet the nutritional standards the bill proposes, according to the study, conducted at New York University (NYU).

Should kids' meals be adjusted to meet the proposed nutritional criteria and if children continue to order them at the same rate, they would consume nine% less calories - for a total of 54 fewer calories - a 10% reduction in sodium and a 10% reduction in the%age of calories coming from fat, say the researchers.

"While 54 calories at a given meal is a small reduction, small changes that affect a wide number of people can make a large impact," says lead author Brian Elbel, PhD, associate professor in the Departments of Population Health at NYU Langone and at NYU Wagner. "Passing the bill could be a step in the right direction, though no single policy can singlehandedly eliminate childhood obesity."

"The policy's effectiveness will depend on whether the food industry attempts to neutralize it through marketing or other strategies," says Marie Bragg, PhD, co-author and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone and at the NYU College of Global Public Health. "For example, the industry could remove children's meals altogether, forcing children to order the larger portions from the adult menu."

Dr. Bragg noted that in Chile, it's against the law to market kids' meals that include toy gifts, a law she applauds.

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