Some children’s cartoons feature characters that never quit moving (think Spider-Man swinging from building to building). But sandwiched between these make-believe calorie-burning activities are supersized helpings of food advertising that many experts say threatens to weigh pint-size consumers down.
The average child consumes more than 5,000 televised food ads annually, according to the Institute of Medicine, an independent nonprofit dedicated to helping people make informed health decisions. And a study published in May in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that a voluntary food industry pledge to focus advertising more squarely on healthy food failed to make significant progress, with ads still predominantly peddling salty, sugary and fatty fare.
“Food marketing is a significant contributor to childhood obesity,” says the study’s lead investigator Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Changing the Conversation in Food Advertising
Kunkel previously served on an ad hoc IOM committee that studied food marketing and the attendant influence on kids’ diets. In 2006, the IOM recommended food companies shift the emphasis away from high-calorie, low-nutrient foods to instead advertise more healthful fare and beverages.
“The study I completed was holding the industry accountable for whether or not they achieved this goal,” Kunkel says. “My data show they haven’t.”
Participants in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, or CFBAI, which today number 18 companies, up from 10 initially, range from McDonald’s and General Mills to Kellogg Company. The companies account for more than two-thirds of food advertising aired during children’s programming.
Kunkel’s research compared kid-targeted food ads in 2007 (before the industry’s pledge to make changes took full effect) to ads in 2013 (after pledge terms were implemented). “Every company did exactly what they said they would,” he says, in terms of capping the amount of sugar, salt and calories in foods they advertised.
The problem is that the majority of foods advertised still fell into the “least healthy” category, Kunkel says, based on a rating system devised by the Department of Health and Human Services as a guide for parents. The rating system labels foods as ” Go, Slow and Whoa!” with healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, getting the “Go” label — a green light to consume them anytime. The “Slow” label is applied to foods that should be eaten less frequently, like waffles, and the”Whoa! Should I eat that?” category is reserved for the least healthy fare, like french fries.
“The industry is not meeting their side of this. We had hoped they would promote genuinely healthy foods. In fact, they take … 10 or 20 percent of sugar out of an Oreo and then they say that’s a healthy food,” Kunkel says. “They even invented a term for it: It’s called ‘better for you.'”
‘Baby Steps’ or Substantial Progress?
He characterizes any progress made by the industry as “baby steps” that fall well short of sweeping changes needed to address the childhood obesity epidemic. Based on the study’s findings, Kunkel advocates, as the IOM did should company self-regulation efforts fail, that Congress enact legislation to mandate the shift in foods advertised to kids on broadcast and cable.
Kunkel’s research found companies that didn’t participate in voluntary self-regulation, including Chuck E. Cheese and Topps Company, which sells candy, tended to feature the least healthy foods based on “Go, Slow, and Whoa!” categories more frequently than did CFBAI-participating companies.
Elaine D. Kolish, vice president and director of the CFBAI, disagrees that the food industry hasn’t made significant progress and called the “Go, Slow, and Whoa!” system flawed and outdated.
Kolish says that while companies were initially allowed to create their own terms to define which foods they considered healthy, the CFBAI required those terms to be science-based. “We tried to take into account existing governmental regulations,” she says, noting that there’s much variation in what’s deemed healthy.
She called the food industry’s progress under the initiative “substantial.”
“For one thing, the major candy companies have all stopped advertising to children,” Kolish says. That includes CFBAI participant Mars, which makes M&M’s, Snickers, Twix and other popular chocolate candies.
Topps, which doesn’t participate in the CFBAI, continues to advertise to kids.
In the cereal department, where some breakfast staples advertised to kids previously had as much as 15 grams of sugar, CFBAI participants can no longer market cereals with more than 10 grams of sugar and many have less, Kolish says, adding that many contain whole grains, along with other nutrients and vitamins.
In addition, all companies now follow what the initiative boasts as stronger, more uniform nutrition criteria, which took effect Dec. 31, 2013 — rather than company-specific guidelines — including the cap on sugar in cereal advertised to kids.
Advice for Concerned Parents
Though she doesn’t have a magic number, Helen Seagle, a registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, says she wouldn’t recommend that parents pick out cereal containing anything with more than 6 grams of sugar for their kids.
Seagle works with families of children who are overweight, including helping them make healthy lifestyle changes and food choices.
Kids definitely talk about the latest sugary cereal, she says, adding that food advertising certainly seems to have an impact on kids’ preferences. “The parents will say, ‘Oh, yes, they talk about them all the time. In some ways, parents are hearing about the item from the kids.”
That bottom-up marketing approach can ultimately drive purchasing decisions, with kids also clamoring for sweetened beverages. Seagle finds that parents often seem reluctant to say “No,” fearing they might deprive their kids of food choices. She adds that kids she sees typically eat more than 1 serving size, which only adds to sugar consumption.
One strategy she recommends for parents: Instead of unilaterally banning unhealthy foods, focus on how frequently they’re consumed. “I often tell them not to get rid of foods completely, but change the frequency you’re having the foods,” Seagle says.
For example, buy chips in small bags for occasional consumption, she adds, rather than always having them around in larger bags.
Health and nutrition experts say making gradual lifestyle changes, such as shifting over time to eating predominantly fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats, among other healthful foods, and gradually limiting indulgences can improve success rates. By comparison, trying to cut out all goodies at once can lead to more lapses and the resumption of original unhealthy eating habits.
In addition, parents might consider having their kids watch cartoons through PBS, Netflix or other sources that provide programming they’re OK with — without the ads.
The May study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine did note a reduction in total food ads to about 6 1/2 every hour totaling two minutes, 21 seconds, compared with 8 1/2 ads totaling three minutes, 29 seconds per hour. However, it found that food ads still accounted for roughly one-fourth of all the commercials kids saw.
“The advice is to reduce children’s exposure to commercially sponsored TV,” Kunkel says.
He also takes issue with the food industry’s argument that it’s not the ads contributing to kids’ waistlines — rather it’s watching too much TV, which keeps kids on the couch instead of doing the exercise needed to shed pounds.
Kunkel points to a 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health which concluded that evidence doesn’t support the notion that simply viewing TV contributes to obesity, because it’s a sedentary activity, but rather that TV advertising is associated with obesity. The research compared the impact of kids watching programming without advertising, including for food, versus programming with it.
“Exercise is always desirable. But kids could exercise endlessly, and as long as they’re still seeing large amounts of unhealthy food advertising, they’re still going to be at risk of obesity,” Kunkel says. “It would be hard to imagine how much exercise you would need to overcome regular consumption of sugared cereals, fast food meals, potato chips and snacks like that.”
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