TORONTO -- Children are far more likely to pick a healthier fast-food meal when promotional toys are offered only with those menu options and not with less nutritional fare like burgers, fries and a pop, a study has found.
Canadian researchers set out to see which McDonald's Happy Meals that kids age six to 12 would choose when toys were included with healthier menu combinations, but not with standard offerings that are typically higher in fat and salt.
It turns out the children were three times more likely to opt for a healthier Happy Meal containing apple slices with caramel sauce and water instead of fries and pop when a toy came only with the more nutritional boxed meals.
"Overall, our findings suggest that toys have a strong influence on children's food choices," said Erin Hobin, a post-doctoral fellow in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo, who led the study published Sunday in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.
"And actually we also found that the toys have a stronger influence on boys than girls."
The study was conducted over a six-week period in August 2011 and involved more than 330 children attending YMCA summer day camps in the Waterloo region. For their lunch on the study day, each child was asked to pick a Happy Meal from an order form that showed photos of each meal combination and the toy, if included.
The kids were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Those in the study intervention group were offered the choice of four meals: two more nutritional combinations with a toy and two less healthy meals without a toy; those in the control group could pick one of the same four meals, but all included promotional toys.
"We wanted to try and make the study as naturalistic as possible, so that's why we chose McDonald's, because it is the most popular restaurant for children under the age of 13 in North America," Hobin said from Waterloo, Ont.
"That's also why we chose to use the actual toys that McDonald's were giving out the week of our study," she said, noting that they included tiny Smurf dolls related to a movie featuring the characters playing in theatres at the time.
The Happy Meals offered were hamburgers or a grilled chicken wrap with fries and a pop or either of the first two choices with apple slices in caramel dipping sauce and bottled water.
Hobin said the fact children in the intervention group were more likely to opt for the healthier meals when a toy was offered suggests that restricting promotional premiums could be one way to get kids to avoid eating less nutritional fast food.
"Currently, Canada has very few regulations restricting food marketing practices directed at children, despite the fact that government and non-government organizations have identified that reducing food marketing to children as a priority in Canada's childhood obesity strategy," she said.
-- The Canadian Press