Ana Idolo may be too young to order her own food, but the 2-year-old knows what she wants. As her father Marco unpacks the Happy Meal he ordered for her at a Barcelona McDonald's, she ignores the chicken nuggets and French fries, and instead holds out her hand in eager anticipation for the best part of the meal: a small plastic statue of the Star Wars character Yoda. "Sometimes I think we just buy these for the toys," says Marco.
Toys in children's food may be as old as Cracker Jack (the caramel-covered popcorn has had "a prize in every box" since 1912), but in Spain, the tradition may soon go the way of liquor commercials on TV and smoking in restaurants. Concerned about rising rates of childhood obesity, the Health Ministry is backing legislation that, if approved, would ban restaurants and food manufacturers from including toys and prizes with their products. It's an initiative sure to make multinational corporations to say nothing of untold millions of children unhappy, but one that health experts say is necessary.
The percentage of children who are either overweight or clinically obese has skyrocketed in recent years across Europe, but in Spain, the problem has been particularly acute. The latest data from the London-based International Obesity Taskforce from 2006 indicate that Spain has the highest incidence of overweight boys (35%) and the third highest rate of overweight girls (32%) in the European Union. Of those children, an estimated 15% to 16% are considered obese.
Why is Spain at the head of the list? "As a country, we industrialized later than others in Europe, but when it happened, it happened very quickly, so the change in diet occurred much more dramatically," says Dr. Xavier Formiguera, president of the Spanish Society for Obesity Studies. "And culture also plays a role. Lots of Spaniards still think a chubby child is a more attractive child."
But with childhood obesity-related diseases costing Spain roughly $3.7 billion annually or 7% of total health care costs the government has decided to take drastic measures. If passed, the new legislation will prohibit schools from selling foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and require them to inform parents of the nutritional content of all meals served in their children's school cafeterias. Those measures are hardly unique plenty of European countries place strict controls on what their children eat in school. Both France and England, for example, have banned vending machines selling junk food on school grounds. But the Spanish proposal goes further than those almost anywhere else in the world when it comes to controlling what goes on outside school hours. In fact, it would dramatically restrict how fast-food restaurants and junk-food companies reach out to their most eager customers.
In addition to limiting the hours during which junk food can be advertised on TV, the bill would prohibit celebrities from appearing in any ads for foods aimed at children. And, in a move that may mean the death of the Happy Meal, it would ban companies from including toys or prizes in foods targeted to children. "The aim is to protect children from their own bad food choices, since we know that they don't always have the ability to make wise, informed decisions," says Roberto Sabrido, president of the Spanish Food Security and Nutrition Agency, the entity that drafted the proposal under the Health Ministry's direction. "We don't want them eating fast food just to get the toy."
Spokespeople for McDonald's, Burger King and Kellogg's all declined to offer an opinion on the proposed legislation, saying it was still subject to modification and congressional approval. A vote has not yet been scheduled on the bill. But when a similar toy ban was proposed by the municipal government of Liverpool, England, McDonald's officials argued that the plan was unworkable because it was too broad and said that it took "the fun out of eating." That ban has yet to be enacted.
Sabrido is adamant that the Happy Meal and its ilk pose a risk, pointing to a 2008 study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research that found obesity among American children could be reduced 18% if fast-food advertising was banned. "Many scientific studies have clearly established a connection between advertising content and increased consumption when it comes to children," he says. "And increased consumption leads to obesity."
But it remains to be seen how the Spanish public will take to the idea of removing the miniature action figures from their kids' Happy Meals. Ana's parents say they aren't worried about their daughter's weight. "We eat well at home, and an occasional treat isn't going to hurt her," says her mother Tonia. In fact, they had also eaten lunch at McDonald's the previous day. "She really loved the toy saber," Marco says.