It's been a year since New York City Council Member Ben Kallos proposed setting standards for nutritional content in fast-food meals aimed at children. The so-called "Healthy Happy Meals" bill, which is still winding its way through the city's political process, would limit the calories, fat, and sodium in a meal served with a child's toy and also require such meals to include a serving of fruit, vegetables, or whole grains.
As written, the law would require meals featuring toys to contain:
• no more than 500 calories; • no more than 600 mgs of sodium; • fewer than 35 percent of calories from fat; • fewer than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats; • and fewer than 10 percent of calories from added sugars.
Researchers at New York University wanted to know if the proposed law would produce healthier results. Brian Elbel, PhD, MPH, an associate Professor and chief of section on Health Choice, Policy, and Evaluation at NYU's School of Medicine, reviewed data from a previous study conducted in 2013 and 2014. In that study, researchers collected data on purchases for 422 children made by 358 adults from multiple NYC and New Jersey locations of three fast-food restaurant chains, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s.
If all the children’s combination meals purchased from those restaurants had met the proposed criteria, children would have consumed 9 percent less calories, 10 percent less sodium and 10 percent fewer calories from fat.
"While 54 calories (9 percent) at a given meal is a small reduction, small changes that affect a wide number of people can make a large impact," Elbel said. "Passing the bill could be a step in the right direction, though no single policy can single-handedly eliminate childhood obesity."
Cities have targeted fast-food children's meals featuring toys, including New York. The most successful to date is in San Francisco. The city passed a law in 2011 that banned toys in meals that didn't meet certain nutritional guidelines. McDonald's, for example, stopped giving away the toys for free and instead offered them to parents for a dime.
A subsequent study found the law successful in reducing calories, sodium, and fat in kid's meals, though maybe not as directly as planned.
New York's law may not ultimately be successful—either politically or as policy. Elbel and his co-authors point that such policies may result in restaurants removing meals with children's portions and forcing kids to order off the adult menu.