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Fast Food Follies

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

By Alex Formuzis, EWG Vice-President for Media Relations

Around this time last year the health-conscious crew at KFC headquarters gave the American consumer the Double Down chicken sandwich - 540 calories of bacon and cheese with no veggies, smashed between slabs of fried chicken instead of buns.

At the time I thought Fast Food couldn't sink any lower.

I was wrong.

This time the cause for my stomach churn is Burger King and its latest product, the Meat Monster burger that delivers 1,160 calories via a mountain of:

  • two beef patties
  • a piece of chicken
  • two strips of bacon
  • two slices of cheese
  • teriyaki sauce
  • if you want, add a fried egg and/or a fish patty on top - but that's extra.

Along with the whopping calorie count come 24 grams of saturated fat, 12 grams of sugar, 240 miligrams of cholesterol, 54 grams of carbs and 2,290 miligrams of salt, according to a breakdown by the folks at Consumerist.

Currently, this heart attack in a box is only available in Japan. Haven't the Japanese suffered enough?

Here in the U.S. it's estimated that roughly 75 percent of all health care-related spending goes to treat chronic diseases, many of them associated with a diet high in calories, fat and sodium from regularly indulging in meals like the Meat Monster.

Comparatively little is spent on preventive care, including helping people get access to and eat healthy, nutritious food like fruits and vegetables.

We're the richest and one of the fattest populations in the world. Not our proudest achievement.

The number of American adolescents who are overweight or obese has tripled since 1980. One of the primary reasons is the easy access kids have to cheap, ready-made fast foods and sweet, fizzy drinks. In many places the fast food joint has replaced the park as the place where kids hang out before and after school.

A 2009 study conducted by economists at Cal/Berkeley and Columbia universities found that kids at schools within walking distance (500 feet) of a fast food restaurant will likely have an obesity rate at least 5 percent higher than kids who aren't so "lucky."

Another 2009 study cited in the same Reuters article, by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, found that residents of neighborhoods heavily populated with fast food restaurants are at greater risk of suffering a stroke.

Both these scenarios typically confront families who live in inner-city neighborhoods and depressed rural communities throughout the country, where fast food chains and junk food mini-marts are often the only available and affordable options.

In a recent analysis by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, researchers reported that:

"Fast food is the most unhealthy food product marketed to children, other than sugar-sweetened beverages, and is relentlessly and aggressively targeted toward children starting as young as age two. Food marketing to children negatively influences the dietary choices and health of society's most vulnerable citizens."

The report by the Rudd Center may be the most extensive to date focusing on Fast Food's marketing assault on American children. According to the Yale researchers, the industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on advertising and other media, and the average child between 2 and 5 years of age watches 2.8 fast food ads every day.

Our friends at Burger King and McDonalds pledged to clean up their acts and improve the way they pitch to children. But the Rudd researchers found that both chains ramped up their television advertising to kids from 2007 to '09:

"Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald's and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald's and 10% more for Burger King."

The report goes on:

  • McDonald's web-based marketing starts with children as young as 2 at Ronald.com.
  • McDonald's and Burger King created sophisticated websites with 60 to 100 pages of adver-games and virtual worlds to engage children (McWorld.com, HappyMeal. com, and ClubBK.com).
  • McDonald's 13 websites attracted an average of 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors each month in 2009.
  • Nine restaurant Facebook pages had more than one million fans each as of July 2010.

Smartphone apps were available for eight fast food chains, providing another opportunity to reach young consumers anytime, anywhere.

Overworked, exhausted parents don't stand a chance against this onslaught. It's the equivalent of the Erickson family from two doors down facing the NFC champs in the Super Bowl.

Crunchtimefood's Sherri York does provide some helpful tips for parents looking for ways to steer their kids away from junk food and eater more fruits and vegetables. But perhaps the best advice on this front is: Just do it -- the longer you wait, the harder it gets.

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