Sugary drink options on kids’ menus fall as low-fat milk and water availability grows

Kids menus offering bottled water grew the most between 2012 and 2016, according to CSPI. ©iStock/LiudmylaSupynska

The availability of sugar-sweetened beverages on children’s menus at the top 50 US restaurant chains has decreased from 93% in 2008 to 74% in 2016, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Since 2012, national restaurant chains including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, DairyQueen, Applebee’s, IHOP, and Jack in the Box have removed sugary drinks from their children’s menus; contributing to this decline in availability.

The report by CSPI found that of the top 50 restaurant chains, 38 had designated children’s menus that included beverages.

Of those 38 restaurants, 74% included sugary drinks (soda, lemonade, sugar-sweetened juice drinks, and other beverages with added sugar) on their kids’ menus; 65% included juice (50% or higher real juice without added sugars); 69% offered low-fat milk (fat free and 1%, including flavored milk), 40%  high-fat milk (2% and whole milk, including flavored milk), and 13% bottled water or seltzer.

Water and milk options grow

While making up the lowest portion of children’s beverage menu options, bottled water saw the largest increase in availability growing from accounting for 2% of kids’ menus in 2012 to 13% in 2016.

Low-fat milk also almost doubled in availability increasing from 36% in 2008 to 69% in 2016. However, high-fat milk has been on the decline since 2008 when it appeared on 50% of children’s menus to 40% in 2016.

McDonald’s USA reported that it sold 21 million more low-fat and fat-free milk jugs and 100% apple juice boxes in the first 11 months it removed soda from its Happy Meals compared to the same period a year earlier (July 2014 to May 2015).

Away-from-home consumption on the rise

Families with children increasingly rely on restaurants as away-from-home consumption accounts for 50.1% of food and meal expenses compared to 26% in 1970, a trend that will likely continue, according to CSPI.

In addition, children eat almost twice as many calories from a typical restaurant meal compared to a typical meal from home, underscoring the impact beverage choices can have on children’s daily caloric intake, CSPI added.

Local policies such as California setting nutrition standards that prohibit the meals sold with toys to include sugary drinks have contributed to the decline in sugary drinks availability on menus.

The National Restaurant Association has implemented nutrition guidelines under its Kids LiveWell program that requires its 42,000 members to offer at least one children’s meal option that is 600 calories or less.

“Restaurants should ensure that all beverages and foods on the children’s menu meet the National Restaurant Association’s nutrition guidelines through its Kids LiveWell program, and participate in the program,” CSPI added. 

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