Who’s ready to get their science fair on? Wait a minute, you’re thinking – isn’t the science fair next year? Yes, the Alachua Region Fair is Thursday February 6th, 2014. But it’s never too early to start thinking about your project. Kids all over the county are already brainstorming with their teachers.
Alachua County loves the science fair, and a lot of local kids go on to the state level. My science teacher at Lincoln Middle School, Mrs. Adrienne Thieke, says that you shouldn’t think of an experiment, but a problem that will evolve into an experiment, because science is about solving problems, not making things blow up.
Lila Bernhardt, a student at Westwood Middle School last year, is a perfect example of that philosophy. She was one of several winners who moved on to the state level last year. But more than being a winner, she exposed a problem. Her project was on the nutritional value of kids’ meals at chain fast-food restaurants. Lila started out with the idea that youth obesity is a significant problem in the U.S. (This is also the problem my project is looking at this year!) Lila started with a study on food and drink advertisements on channels most watched by teens. She found that fast food and restaurant ads promoted the least healthy products. Next, she expanded her research to find out if the Kids’ Meals at the top 25 chain restaurants were healthy or not. Her hypothesis was that there would be more unhealthy Kids’ Meals than healthy.
I asked Lila if she would share her results in the blog, because they were really amazing! Here is what she reported:
I conducted an observational epidemiology study on the top 25 US chain restaurants based on annual sales by collecting data from their respective websites. Twenty of the 25 restaurants had Kids’ Meals. I entered the name and category of all available menu items into a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet along with the Calorie, Fat, Saturated Fat, and Sodium content for each item. I then created every meal combination from each restaurant, which included every possible combination of food choices without paying extra. There were 6,441 meal combinations and more than 38,000 data points. To test if the Kid’s Meals were healthy or unhealthy, I used nutritional standards for one meal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Restaurant Association. My nutritional standards for 4 to 8 year olds were 500 Calories, 19.3 grams of Fat, 5.5 grams of Saturated Fat, and 770 milligrams of Sodium; and for 9 to 12 year olds were 633 Calories, 24.4 grams of Fat, 6.96 grams of Saturated Fat, and 770 milligrams of Sodium. Meals were considered unhealthy if they exceeded the standards and healthy if they met or were below the standards.
I found that 15.2% of the Kids’ Meal combinations met all the nutritional standards for 4-8 year olds, and 21.9% met all of the nutritional standards for 9-12 year olds. Therefore, my hypothesis was strongly supported because there were far more unhealthy Kids’ Meals than there were healthy. I found that Dairy Queen and McDonalds had no meal combinations that met the standards for 4-8 year olds, while Subway and Burger king had the highest percentages of meal combinations that met the standards for both age groups. Simulation analysis to test the effects of removing some available choices found that removing fries and sugared soda from Kids’ Meals significantly increased the proportion of meals meeting the nutritional standards. Interestingly, only one Kids’ Meal, out of the 1,547 meals with fries, actually met the nutritional standards for 4-8 year olds.
In conclusion, the vast majority of meal combinations available on Kids’ Meals at the top 25 US chain restaurants are unhealthy. Based on these findings, it would be very difficult, and in some cases impossible, for children to eat a healthy Kids’ Meal at the top 25 chain restaurants. Restaurants should consider ways to increase the number of healthy choices available and future research should explore ways to encourage people to choose healthier options.
Lila’s teacher, Mrs. Sara Charbonnet, who is the science fair coordinator at Westwood, said students from Alachua County consistently do this level of work! Science projects are not required in the high schools, but the high school students who do them also consistently place at the state, national, and international levels.
All middle school students, including homeschoolers, can enter the Alachua County Science Fair. Winners can move on to the regionals, and then to the state science fair, but unfortunately, middle school students cannot go past the state level. To learn more about our county’s science fair, and contacts and everything else you need, click here.
So put your science-thinking cap on and hope to see you in February!
Until then, expect more posts! Will.