Bubblegum-flavoured broccoli, anyone?

Emma Woollacott
Portrait of boy (6-7) eating broccoli
Portrait of boy (6-7) eating broccoli

How do you get your children to eat more vegetables? Why, you make broccoli taste like bubblegum, of course.

That, at any rate, was one solution investigated by McDonalds, the company's CEO Don Thompson revealed last week. But, he said, the weird vegetable simply confused children: "It wasn't all that," he said.

But he defended the company's menus, saying that McDonald's sells more salads than any other American restaurant chain, and saying it was up to parents to make food choices for their children:
"You can't ask a business to do things that you as a parent won't do yourself," he said.

If the bubblegum-flavoured broccoli smacks of desperation, that's because McDonalds is in a permanently difficult position when it comes to a healthy diet. Under pressure, it started including fresh fruit in its Happy Meals - targeted at children - in 2011.

And thanks to Ofcom rules which prevent foods high in fat, sugar and salt being advertised directly to children, it now advertises them in the UK by showing fruit and water, rather than fizzy drinks and chips.

However, earlier this year, University of Liverpool researchers told an obesity conference that the ads were cleverly complying with the letter of the law on advertising to children, but were doing nothing to encourage children to eat more healthily.

They said that after seeing a Happy Meal consisting of fish fingers, fruit and a bottle of water, children still opted for a burger and chips.

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Has Fast Food Gone Healthy?
Has Fast Food Gone Healthy?

One in five children is overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, research has found - indeed, British girls are the fattest in Europe. And there's a strong link between obesity and fast food.

"We found that the more unhealthy food outlets there are in a neighbourhood, the greater the number of overweight and obese children," says Prof Andy Jones of the University of East Anglia. "The results were more pronounced in secondary school children who have more spending power to choose their own food."

And in another study, it was found that eating fast food three times a week was associated with asthma and eczema in children. Indeed, in extreme cases, the effects can be even worse: earlier this year, 17-year-old Stacey Irvine collapsed after years of eating almost nothing but McDonalds chicken nuggets.

"It is recommended that a Happy Meal, or similar, should be provided as an occasional treat, rather than as a staple of a child's diet," advises NHS Choices.

"With the right training, you can even convince a child that broccoli is a treat, rather than something to be endured."

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