The results of this study showed that kids’ meals from FFR and SDR were high in calories, and also alarmingly high sodium and saturated fat when compared to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations. Mean sodium levels exceeded the AI for children 4–8 years old, and mean saturated fat levels ranged from 31 to 36 % of total fats, or 10–13 % of total calories from fat. Although there is no specific AI for saturated fat, the American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5 to 6 % of calories from saturated fat . Due to larger portion sizes, kids’ meals from SDRs had significantly higher amounts of calories and saturated fat when compared to FFRs. However, when nutrient levels were standardized per 100 g, SDRs had a significantly lower calorie and sodium density compared to FFRs.
The data showing that SDR meals had significantly higher levels of unhealthy nutrients when compared to FFR is not a novel finding. Two previous studies have also found that SDR meals have higher amounts of calories, fat and saturated fat [20, 21]. However, our study expanded upon this research by demonstrating that among kids’ meals, this discrepancy was largely due to larger portion sizes in SDR. Furthermore, when comparisons were standardized, FFR often had higher densities of unhealthy nutrients. Therefore, our results indicate that kids’ meals from SDR are not necessarily less healthful in terms of their nutrient composition, when compared to kids’ meals from FFR, rather they are simply larger.
These results were consistent with similar studies conducted in other countries that have investigated the nutrient levels in kids’ meals from chain restaurants. In comparison to Batada et al.’s findings in the United States , calorie levels were similar (740 kcal in the US, versus 737–846 kcal in the Canadian data in this study). The observed differences in sodium levels (1,448 mg in the US versus 1,230–1,248 mg in this study) may be due to the fact that, unlike Batada’s study, the data presented here was weighted to ensure that each restaurant and meal was equally represented.
Similar to our findings, previous research has shown that 1 % of FFR kids’ meals in Australia exceeded the sodium UL for children . However, kids’ meals from Australia on average had fewer calories (532 kcal versus 737 in our study), less saturated fat (6.4 g versus 8 g), and less sodium (702 mg versus 1230 mg) compared to the Canadian results in this study. The higher levels observed in Canada compared to Australia may be due to the variation in the number of meals assessed (199 meals in Australian study, versus 815 FFR meals in our Canadian study). Consistent with our findings, research in the United Kingdom demonstrated that SDR had higher calories compared to FFR and similar to our findings, this difference was due to larger portion sizes . In addition, the FFR kids’ meals in the United Kingdom also had a higher calorie density compared to SDR meals (1.6 kcal/g and 1.2 kcal/g).
The differences seen when comparing nutrient levels per serving and per 100 g illustrate the importance of setting nutrition standards to assess nutrient levels both per serving and per 100 g. The standards set in the US according to the National Restaurant Association’s criteria, assess calories, sodium and trans fat per serving, and assess fats as a percentage of total calories. Currently, the US National Restaurant Association’s criteria does not assess any nutrient levels on a per 100 g basis. Therefore, the large differences seen in this study, when comparing nutrient levels per 100 g, illustrate that standardized comparisons are an important factor when developing criteria to define healthy restaurant meals.
In the United States, efforts are being made to improve the nutritional quality of kids’ restaurant meals and to encourage healthier choices for children when eating-out. For example, two counties in California have banned the distribution of toys with meals that do not meet specific nutritional criteria . In addition, the US National Restaurant Association has launched the “Kids Live Well” program which encourages restaurants to offer and promote healthy kids’ meals that meet specific nutritional criteria . Despite these efforts elsewhere, to date, none of these policies or initiatives exist in Canada. Therefore, the results of this study illustrate that there is a need for programs and/or policies in Canada to encourage restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their kids’ meals. Preliminary research in the United States has shown that menu-labeling in restaurants may be one way to encourage restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their meals . Additionally, providing sodium targets for restaurant foods, as was done by Health Canada for packaged foods in Canada would further support such efforts.
Limitations of this study are that many restaurants did not provide data for their kids’ meals; therefore our data represent only a sample of the restaurant sector. Furthermore, the integrity of the results are reliant upon the validity of the data provided online by the restaurants. While this data was collected in 2010, studies to date have shown no major changes in sodium , or calorie levels in restaurants , therefore, these conclusions are likely still relevant.