Field Notes

Children’s Menus Still Unhealthful, Despite Industry Pledges

Despite a 2011 pledge among US chain restaurants to improve the nutritional value of children’s menu options, a new study finds no significant improvements have been made to cut calories, saturated fats, or sodium. The study is the first to look at trends in the nutrient content of kids’ meals among national restaurant chains since the National Restaurant Association launched the voluntary Kids LiveWell program in 2011. The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

By 2015, more than 150 chain restaurants with more than 42,000 locations had joined the Kids LiveWell program and pledged to increase the number of nutritious menu items available to children. In the years since, several major chain restaurants have announced that they will remove soda as the default choice on children’s menus, while others have added healthful side options such as yogurt and fruit to kids’ menus and meals. The authors, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, say that while these steps have the potential to make a difference, the results of the study show more meaningful changes are needed.

“Some restaurant chains in the United States have added healthier menu options, but at the end of the day, what we’re seeing is that little progress has been made to improve the nutritional quality of kid’s menu offerings despite industry pledges,” says senior author Christina Roberto, PhD, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Moving forward, stronger partnerships between restaurants and public health experts will be needed to make more meaningful change, and restaurants will need to be held accountable to their pledges.”

Additional results of the study show that while some restaurants have replaced soda as the default beverage in kids’ meals, many of the new selections are still sugar sweetened and contain just as much sugar as soda. In fact, results show that sugar-sweetened beverages still make up 80% of children’s beverage options, despite voluntary pledges to reduce their prevalence.

In the study, researchers used data from the nutrition census MenuStat to track trends in the nutrient content of 4,016 beverages, entrées, 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 from 2012–2015. Out of the sample, 15 restaurants were Kids LiveWell participants.

— Source: Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania


Type of Sugar Consumption Impacts Health Risks

The type of sugar you eat—and not just calorie count—may determine your risk of chronic disease. A new study is the first of its kind to compare the effects of two types of sugar on metabolic and vascular function. The paper is published in the American Journal of Physiology — Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

Female rats were given a liquid solution of either glucose (a form of sugar found naturally in the body after carbohydrates are broken down) or fructose (sugar found in fruit and fruit juices) in addition to their normal diet of solid food. The rats received the sweetened solutions for eight weeks, roughly equivalent to a person eating large amounts of sugar for six years. The sugar-fed rats were compared with a control group that received plain drinking water in addition to their food supply.

Researchers found that although both sugar-fed groups consumed more calories than the control group, the total calorie intake of the glucose-fed rats was higher than the rats that were given fructose. Another surprising observation was that “despite this difference, only the fructose group exhibited a significant increase in final body weight,” according to the research team.

In addition to higher weight gain, the fructose group showed more markers of vascular disease and liver damage than the glucose group. These included high triglycerides, increased liver weight, decreased fat burning in the liver (a factor that can contribute to fatty liver) and impaired relaxation of the aorta, which can affect blood pressure.

These findings suggest that an increase in the amount of calories consumed due to sweeteners isn’t the only factor involved in long-term health risks. The type of sugar also may play a role in increasing risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

— Source: American Physiological Society