A Santa Clara County law mandating health standards for children’s meals accompanied by free toys has had limited effects, according to a recent study by the School of Medicine.
The study, which tracked businesses’ reactions to an Aug. 2010 law, documented menus, prices, restaurant signage and whether incentives such as toys were being offered, among other criteria. Published Dec. 8 in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, it found that restaurants did not increase the number of healthy items on their children’s menus, as hoped.
“This ordinance gave us the opportunity to study a real-world example of a private-sector response to a public health policy,” said Jennifer Otten, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
“It’s true that parents have the responsibility to seek out healthy choices for their children,” Otten said. “But, if those choices don’t exist or aren’t easily identified for parents, then we need to explore the best levers for changing our environment so that they are.”
The law prohibits restaurants from offering incentives such as toys for meals with more than 485 calories or meals that did not meet nutritional standards with respect to fat, salt and sugar content. A Federal Trade Commission report found that ten restaurant chains spend $360 million on 1.2 billion children’s toys in 2006.
The ordinance mandated that restaurants either improve the nutrition of their meals or stop offering incentives. It affected only unincorporated parts of the county, and found that, both before and after the study, only four percent of children’s meals offered met the nutritional standards set forth.
However, although none of the restaurants studied added healthier children’s meal options, environmental changes were made. Toys were offered at an extra cost, marketing posters were removed and healthier options were featured.
“Before, parents had no idea which meals met the nutritional criteria,” Otten said. “After the law was implemented, one restaurant made it clear which ones did. In addition, there was a clear decrease in toy marketing and advertising at some of the affected restaurants.”
Meanwhile, restaurants not affected by the law made minimal changes. Otten said the study showed that such legislation can “de-link” the inherent relation between toys and unhealthy food. She and her colleagues surveyed 900 families on how the law affected their habits.
They are currently collecting additional data in San Francisco, where a similar ordinance was passed Dec. 1.
The study was funded by The Obesity Society, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research Program and Nutrilite. Stanford’s Department of Medicine provided additional support.