Following the fast food chain's announcement, health lobbyists turn to sit-down restaurant Applebee's in ongoing efforts to curb childhood obesity rates in US
Burger King has dropped sugary soft drinks from its children's meals menu, following similar action by fast food rivals McDonald's and Wendy's that is prompting nutrition campaigners to claim a small but significant victory in the public health battle against obesity.
"Applebee's next!" said one health lobbyist, indicating that campaign groups now want sit-down chain restaurants to take note of the fast-food giants' moves and follow suit, starting with the popular value eatery Applebee's.
Lobbyists noticed last week that Burger King's online menus no longer included soda in the list of children's meals that sell a selection of food and drink items for one price.
When inquiries were made, Burger King confirmed to USA Today that it had withdrawn soda from kids' meals as part of a new national policy that had been implemented online and is being rolled out across its US franchises.
Children can still be served soft drinks, but they will have to be purchased separately from the combo meals designed for them.
The kids' meals in Burger King will now include milk, chocolate milk, apple juice or water with the customary items such as chicken nuggets and fries, rather than sugary soda from the soft drinks fountain.
The switch was made as part of an "ongoing effort to offer our guests options that match lifestyle needs", Alex Macedo, the president of Burger King North America, told USA Today.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington DC, has been lobbying fast food giants for two years to take the action and praised Burger King's "really important step".
"If you take a hamburger, fries and a soda compared with a hamburger with a side of fruit and a water - the first one is junk, the second one is better," said Margo Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy.
"Soda is the No 1 source of calories in children's diets and offering it in a kids' meal is the biggest single problem in that meal," she added.
McDonald's initiated a public announcement in 2013 when it took the soda option, such as Coke, Sprite and other sugary soft drinks, out of its kids' "Happy Meals" combinations.
Burger King did not make its own announcement and has not attributed its decision to the lobbying efforts of healthy food campaigners.
"In my 20 years of working here, I'm not sure if any companies have every publicly said we were responsible for their change in policy or practice," Wootan said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is part of a coalition of campaign groups lobbying fast food companies to make all their meals more healthy, by cutting down calorie counts, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
The group plans to target sit-down chains next to persuade them to stop marketing and offering soda drinks specifically to children.
"Next up, Applebee's," Wootan said.
Wootan said the move by Burger King would make it easier for parents to say no to children's request for soda with their meals and would help prevent children from developing the habit of having sugary drinks with a meal.
The percentage of children ages 6-11 years in the US who are obese increased from 7% in 1980 to almost 18% in 2012. Youngsters ages 12-19 years who suffer from obesity increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Burger King will no longer offer soda as part of its kids' meals. However, soft drinks can still be purchased separately from the combo meal. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA