Kids' Fast Food Habits: A Vicious Cycle?

Today’s post comes to us from Camilla Nord, who found some striking statistics about kids’ fast food eating habits in the wake of some recent self-imposed health-focused changes by food marketers. Despite changes for the better, kids still crave fast food and junk food, and who can blame them considering the barrage of marketing messages they see for such fare, compared to how few they see for healthy food. But if all were equal, would that change their habits anyway? Camilla takes it from here…

Kids’ Fast Food Habits: A Vicious Cycle?

Girl with hamburgerThe criticism of fast food companies — of their products and their marketing strategies — has increased yet again this summer. Industry players, such as McDonald’s, have responded in force, reducing caloric content or creating new company guidelines for children’s meals. These changes could have a significant impact on children and adolescent consumption habits, and by extension, obesity. But while some new regulations could have a significant impact on calories, saturated fat, or sodium content of products, many seem like a smoke-and-mirrors distractions from what consumers will really order. Children and young adults seem unconcerned by “healthiness” of a fast food restaurant, so are these industry changes for real or just for show?

In July, McDonald’s reduced the calorie and fat content of their Happy Meals, added fruit, and introduced an option to request veggies instead of fruit, and the feedback has been positive. Other changes, however, such as the new standards required by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initative (comprised of giants including Burger King, PepsiCo, and Kellogg) have elicited skepticism. The latter named regulations that require, among other things, for participating chains to have at least one children’s menu item under 600 calories. Some responders have speculated whether such rules are “pre-emptive moves” against governmental action, or whether they will realistically affect a child’s fast food consumption habits.

“Millennials” are enormous consumers of fast food; about 20% of them consume fast food every other day. Advertisements for food products high in calories and sugar specifically directed toward youth spend $1.6 billion per year on marketing in the U.S. alone, according to a study at the Yale Rudds Center. This adds up to an average of 5,500 junk food ads viewed per year, per person, whereas ads for healthy food items are seen but 100 times per year.

As a business strategy, it’s difficult to criticize this imbalance because it appears to reflect young adults’ preferences. A recent study by consulting firm L.E.K. found that healthier fast food brands that perform well with the general population — such as Subway — do not perform as well with Gen Y consumers, who prefer instead Chipotle or Panda Express (ranked 1 and 2, respectively). The study concluded that Gen Y is less concerned about health and quality ingredients than are older generations. Here’s the question, though: are the unhealthy advertisements just reflecting what consumers want, or are they actually driving these generational differences?

In reality, it’s probably a bit of both — I don’t usually like fast food and even I love Chipotle — but it presents a worrying picture for the future. Young adults are plagued by certain advertising that tells them (especially girls) to be trim and healthy — yet they are equally, if not more so, followed by messages about fast-food options that seem cooler, tastier, and more youthful than the healthier quick serve fare that performs well with the older population. There is only so much criticism we can throw at fast food companies: the sad truth is, they appear to be giving us — in advertising and in food choices — exactly what we want. Time will tell whether the recent initiatives will make a difference in consumption habits, but perhaps the true change needs to be on a psychological level, convincing Millennials and their younger peers that that healthiness could be cool, too.

About Camilla

CamillaCamilla Nord is in her final year at Oxford University, where she has been studying physiology and psychology since she moved from Washington, D.C. She also grew up partly in Budapest, Hungary, and lived in Kathmandu, Nepal in her very early years. When she’s not writing essays, she is probably painting, practicing Bikram yoga, and thinking about manatees. When she IS writing essays, her favorite part of the brain is the basal ganglia, and her favorite neurotransmitter (those chemicals that shoot around the brain sending signals) is dopamine. The recent involvement of neuroscience techniques in product development and marketing has driven her interest in Ypulse, coupled with a lifelong love of writing — and, of course, a healthy obsession with pop culture.

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