Unbundling Fast Food: How These Funders are Promoting Ways to Reduce Junk Calories Served to Kids

“Do want fries with that? How about an Extra Value Meal, which comes with a drink?”

How many times have we heard those questions, or similar pitches meant to sell us more calories than we were intending to buy?

Two big funders for health, one national, and one state-based, want to do something about this calorie-pushing corporate tendency. They have joined with the National Institutes of Health to fund research into how we eat in America, and find where we could easily shave off some unhealthy calories.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New York State Health Foundation are now promoting a simple solution: end the practice of bundling meals with drinks.

New York City is one of the frontrunners in tackling the obesity problem in America from new angles. In 2012, the New York City Board of Health passed legislation banning the sale of oversized sugar-sweetened drinks, though this legislation was later overturned.

The New York University School of Medicine is one of the hubs for researching the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on calorie intake, and now has results from a study on fast food restaurants that bundle soft drinks into the meal options for children. Not surprisingly, children consume more unhealthy calories with these bundled meals.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health and grants of $250,000 from RWJF and $239,627 from the New York State Health Foundation, this research looked at the calorie consumption of children and teens at fast-food restaurants. Findings from the research indicate a strong association between consuming sugary drinks and the practice of providing “meal deals” that automatically include these beverages. Conducted by the NYU Langone Medical Center, the research found that children eating at the five major fast food chains consumed an average of 179 more calories when their combo meals included soda, sweetened tea, juice or flavored milks, compared to kids who ate their meal with non-sweetened beverages or no drink.

The New York State Health Foundation made this grant through its Building Healthy Communities focus area, which provides grants aimed at reducing health problems through access to healthy food, safe walkable streets, and public places for outdoor activity, recognizing that all of these factors play a role in reducing obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. As we've reported, NYSHealth is a funder with a lot energy and ideas for improving public health in New York State, including some of out-of-the-box thinking. 

RWJF’s grant for this work stems from its focus on fostering a culture of health in general and attacking childhood obesity in particular—it often contributes to other chronic health issues. Childhood obesity has been a huge focus for the foundation in recent years, as we've reported. RWJF is working a lot of angles in this push, and changing what's served restaurants is just one of them. Of course, it's also keenly interested in expanding the evidence base about what shapes health in America and the research on "meal deals" is an example of the fruits that can come from this approach. It nicely tees up an agenda for action.

But make no mistake: Going up against big fast-food empires isn't easy. There's a simple reason for all this bundling, which is that it boosts revenues and profits. And as we know, Big Food will fight hard to protect its bottom line, no matter consequences for public health.