01/03/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Fast Food Toy Ban Does Improve Nutritional Promotion But Not Actual Menu Items, Says Study

Late last year, San Francisco banned fast food toys, in an effort to discourage children from desiring unhealthy food. The idea behind the ban was that "inclusion of an incentive item unfairly targets marketing at children who are unable to make healthy decisions for themselves," according to HuffPost San Francisco. But does the ban actually work? According to a new study in the January 2012 edition of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the answer is "sort of."

The article, "Food Marketing to Children Through Toys," focused on fast food restaurants in Santa Clara County, Ca. The county was the first U.S. jurisdiction to pass an ordinance that prohibited the distribution of toys to children in conjunction with foods and beverages that did not meet minimum nutrition criteria (i.e. no toys with meals with more than 485 calories). In order for restaurants to comply with the ordinance, they were told to introduce more healthful menu options, reformulate current menu items or change the marketing and toy distribution practices.

The study found that there were "post-ordinance improvements" in certain areas: on-site nutritional guidance; promotion of healthy meals, beverages and side items; and toy marketing/distribution activities. However, no restaurant introduced healthier menu options nor did they reformulate any menu items to meet ordinance criteria. In other words, restaurants made no changes to the menu but started promoting the healthy items that were already in existence (only five of 120 children's meals combinations met the ordinance nutritional criteria). And the distribution of toys with unhealthful items was discontinued.

The study authors acknowledge the small sample size of the study, though the sample did including all major franchise restaurants that were affected by the toy ban. The authors believe that it may be easier for restaurants to prohibit toys than it is to revamp menus, which may require more time or a more "pervasive ordinance." Lead author Jennifer Otten remarked that before the ban parents didn't know which meals met nutritional criteria. After the law was implemented, "there was a clear decrease in toy marketing and advertising at some of the affected restaurants."

The toys may disappear, (at least in theory), but the menu remains the same as ever.