A new study, sure to fuel the growing debate about marketing to children, found that 98% of all food advertised to children between the ages of two and 11 was high in sugar, fat or sodium. The study was conducted by the University of Illinois Chicago and Bridge the Gap, a research group funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It appears in the current issue of Pediatrics.
"We know that foods marketed to kids can be high in sugar," said lead researcher Lisa M. Powell. "The fact that it's essentially all of them was surprising."
The study looked at nutritional content in all food advertised on during the 170 highest-rated children's shows. The catch is that the data was collected between 2003 and 2004.
Of course, 2007 has been a big year for limits on advertising to children. Major manufacturers like Kellogg, General Mills and Campbell have agreed to yank at least $1 billion in children-targeted food ads. The FTC issued subpoenas of food, beverage and fast-food advertisers seeking information about how children are targeted.
Given the current climate, should there be a visible change in kid-aimed food ads between 2004 and today? "I think there's a small chance that things have gotten better," Ms. Powell said. "I think these companies have plans in place, but I don't think much has changed."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association begs to differ.
"Over the last five years, food and beverage companies have introduced more than 10,000 new and reformulated products with more whole grains and fiber, reduced calories, reduced saturated fat, zero trans fat and lower sodium and sugar," said Brian Kennedy, the organization's communications manager.
Mr. Kennedy added that in July, as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, 11 food and beverage companies, accounting for more than two-thirds of all TV ads to children under 12, agreed to focus on healthier products and avoid advertising to children.
Ms. Powell maintained that not only was her study, "Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children and Adolescents in the United States," the most comprehensive to date, but it was also more lenient than its predecessors. Foods were not called unhealthful unless 25% of calories came from sugar, 35% of calories came from fat, or the servings marketed to under-11s contained more than 380 mg of sodium. Previous studies red-flagged foods with 20% of calories coming from sugar.
"Then our findings would have been even worse," she said.
Still a hot topic
Despite the wealth of evidence that advertising is changing, the study is likely to be a hot topic. "Clearly our kids are being bombarded with poor nutritional messages every day," Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement. "The food industry could and should be part of the solution, but they'll need to change their marketing practices."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has committed $500 million over the next five years to combat the childhood obesity epidemic.