If 97% of restaurants failed their health inspection, you might never eat out again. And yet, there's a sense in which exactly that happened just last week.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a study that examined 3,500 kid's meal choices at the top 50 restaurant chains in the country. They tested the nutritional content of these kids meals against criteria that allowed up to 430 calories per meal. Of the 430 calories, no more than 10% could come from saturated or trans fats, and nor can more than 35% come from fat. Other criteria considered the amount of added sugars and sodium. At 19 of the 50 chains studied, not a single combination of meal items could meet the CSPI criteria.
97% of the 3,498 meal combinations reviewed by CSPI did not meet experts' health guidelines for children.
What's the big deal if restaurants offer bad food — don't we expect them to do just that?
First, that the environment of available consumer food choices has offered solely unhealthy foods is among the reasons we have an epidemic of childhood obesity in the first place. According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has increased two fold and adolescent obesity threefold in the last 30 years. One-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and are thus at risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes, among other medical, socioeconomic and psychological challenges later in life. Research has indicated that many of the "excess" calories can be attributed to eating outside the home. When it's revealed that most food choices outside the home are not exactly pro-health, the writing is on the wall.
Second, recognize that menu choices condition children (and probably adults, too). They condition children for what food norms are outside the home, which determines what they can demand inside the home. The conditioning also tells them what they can reasonably expect from restaurant chains. It's not until many restaurants offer affordable and healthy menu choices that affordable and healthy foods will become an expected component of our food environment.
To those who groan that groups like CSPI are making much ado about nothing, consider that the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA), the largest body representing the interests of the restaurant industry, itself has a criteria for healthy kids meals: Kids LiveWell. In many ways, this criteria mirrors that of CSPI, but allows more calories per meal. Even under the NRA's own criteria, 91% of restaurants fail to meet their standards for kids meals.
If gallows humor has a place in this story, it should be noted that restaurants have actually performed better on this survey since 2008, when only 1% offered kids meals that met the nutritional criteria. But we shouldn't be celebrating that. For restaurants to move so slowly when studies indicate that healthy foods draw a profit borders on alarming negligence. We should expect better.