Food selections for children at some U.S. sit-down restaurant chains are high-calorie and high-fat, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Tuesday.
"Parents today can't make informed choices on feeding their children well. The problem is that labeling in restaurants is non-existent," said Margo Wootan, CSPI's director of nutrition policy.
The National Restaurant Association estimates Americans will eat more than 70 billion meals and snacks in restaurants in 2004. Simultaneously, rates of obesity in children have skyrocketed. A 2004 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed 15.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight in 1999-2000, compared to 4.2 percent from 1963-1970.
CSPI surveyed 20 of the largest table-service restaurant chains in the country and contracted with an independent laboratory to analyze the nutritional content of children's food at seven chains: Applebee's, Chili's, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
These chains have adjusted their adult menus to satisfy health-conscious diners who adhere to Weight Watchers or Atkin's diet plans but CSPI found the meals advertised for children often contained adult-sized calorie counts.
CSPI said the worse offender was Outback Steakhouse, where the children's version of a cheeseburger, fries, soda, and sundae totaled 1,700 calories and 58 grams of saturated fat. Applebee's grilled cheese sandwich contained 520 calories and 14 grams of saturated fat.
While it compared chains Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's and Chili's to fast food in terms of high calorie and fat content, CSPI noted Red Lobster revamped its children's menu in December 2003. The seafood chain added snow crab legs, grilled mahi-mahi, and grilled chicken to the menu, which had been dominated by battered, deep-fried items.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who helped announce the study results, said, "Nutritional labels once seemed like a huge burden to the food industry, but now 75 percent of shoppers read labels and 50 percent change their decisions about the food they purchase based on the labels."
The study release coincided with Harkin's introduction Tuesday of legislation that would require nutritional information be displayed on chain restaurant menus and vending machines.
The National Restaurant Association issued a statement refuting CSPI's contentions that restaurant food is linked with obesity.
"CSPI seems to continually forget in their various attempts to target foods that 'calories in' is only one part of the equation to living a healthy lifestyle. Balance and moderation in diet, complemented by physical activity, is key to healthier living," the statement said.
"For anyone concerned with health, there is more to look at then the food they eat," Allison Whitesides, director of legislative affairs for NRA, told United Press International. "Chain restaurants cannot label the way Senator Harkin and Congresswoman (Rosa) DeLauro are asking them to."