Online ordering for fast food inconsistent with healthy beverage law, study finds

Feb 17, 2022

Lack of specific language for online context makes assessing compliance difficult

Beverages offered on fast-food restaurant websites and platforms such as DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats often do not adhere to the spirit of California's healthy beverage law for children's meals, according to a new study from University of California researchers.

California's healthy-by-default beverage law (SB1192), which went into effect at the beginning of 2019, requires restaurants to offer only plain or sparkling water with no added sweeteners, unflavored milk, or unflavored non-dairy milk as the default beverage in “kids meals.” The law also requires that menus, menu boards and advertisements for those meals include only approved default options.

The law was passed to address increasing rates of childhood obesity and related chronic diseases, with sugary beverages factoring as a significant contributor to those poor health outcomes.

“Healthy-by-default beverage laws work by making the healthiest choice, the easiest choice for families,” said the study's lead author, Hannah Thompson, senior epidemiologist for the UC Nutrition Policy Institute and assistant adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas has been directly linked to health problems such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and cavities.”

Researchers at the NPI – a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources – found that most fast-food restaurants serving low-income census tracts did not offer beverages online in a way that is consistent with SB1192. The study focused on those neighborhoods because children from low-income families consume sugar-sweetened beverages in greater quantities, likely exacerbating health disparities.

Published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the study looked at a random sample of 254 “quick service restaurant” sites and collected observations from their restaurant-specific websites and three of the most popular online platforms that deliver their menu items – DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats.

Researchers developed four increasingly restrictive criteria – incorporating beverage availability, upcharges and presentation of beverage options – to assess the implementation of SB1192 in these online ordering contexts. Half of their observations met their most lenient criteria, while less than 6% were consistent with their most restrictive – findings that Thompson called “discouraging.”

“It means families have to work harder to make the healthiest drink choices for their children,” she said. “This also means the law is likely not nearly as successful as it could be in its intent to help reduce sugary drink consumption by kids.”

The researchers had to create their own criteria for “compliance” with the law because, as written, SB1192 does not specifically mention online ordering, which has become increasingly popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Part of what makes it hard in the online context is that the law was written using language very specific to the in-restaurant physical space, making interpretation of compliance with the law for meals sold online challenging,” Thompson explained. “I'd love to see amended language in the law specific to meals sold online.”

Thompson also said she would like to see “clear and effective” communication with fast food restaurants and online delivery platforms so that they fully understand the healthy beverage law – as well as the use of a monitoring system that could help ensure compliance.

“Laws, which target system-level changes, are one of the most important public health tools we have to reduce sugary drink consumption and improve health for youth of all backgrounds,” she said. “But laws are only as strong as the structures in place to ensure their successful implementation.”

The other NPI-affiliated authors of the study are Senior Evaluators Anna Martin and Ron Strochlic, Evaluation Associate Sonali Singh, and Associate Director of Research Gail Woodward-Lopez, the principal investigator.

By Mike Hsu
Author - Senior Public Information Representative