The Happy Meal Effect
The increasing proportion of Canadian children who eat at fast-food outlets as part of their regular diet has likely contributed to the increase in obesity. Food consumed at fast-food restaurants is associated with higher caloric, higher fat, and saturated fat intake, as well as lower intake of fruit and vegetables. A recent study of the nutrient quality of children’s meals available at fast-food restaurants in the US found that only 3% of available meals met nutrition criteria for school-aged children.
Toy premiums – providing toys with children’s meals – are an increasingly popular marketing practice used by the fast-food industry. In most cases, toy premiums consist of cross-promotions with the entertainment industry and feature characters from popular children’s movies or TV programs. In 2006, fast-food outlets in the US spent approximately $330 million on toy premiums with children’s meals. More than 1.2 billion meals with toys were sold to children under age 13, making these meals the top-selling fastfood item to children. Comparable sales data among Canadian fast-food outlets are unavailable; however, toy premium marketing trends appear to be similar.
Several jurisdictions have proposed policies that only permit offering fast-food toy premiums with meals that meet certain nutritional criteria. We conducted a study to examine elements of this policy in a Canadian context and determine if children select healthier food products if toy premiums are only offered with healthier food options. The study also examined if the impact of restricting toy premiums to healthier foods varied by gender and age.
A between-groups experimental study was conducted with 337 children aged 6-12 years attending day camps in Ontario, Canada. Children were offered one of four McDonald’s Happy Meals® as part of the camp lunch program: two “healthier” meals that met the nutritional criteria and two meals that did not. In the control condition, all four meals were offered with a toy premium. In the intervention condition, the toy was only offered with the two “healthier” meals.
We found that children are more likely to order healthier fast-food options if a toy is only provided with healthier options. In the current study, children were three times more likely to order the healthier meal options when toys were not offered with meals that failed to meet nutritional criteria. Overall, the findings suggest that policies that restrict toy premiums to food that meet nutritional criteria may promote healthier eating at fast-food restaurants.
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This study examined the impact of food packaging targeted at children on perceptions of nutrition and appeal among mothers. Approximately 500 mothers of children aged 5 to 10 will be recruited to complete an online survey during which they will rate products in which food claims and the child-friendly design of the packages have been systematically altered to vary the type of health symbols (e.g., “Sensible Solutions”) and the presence of cartoon characters.
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