Junk-Food Makers Lied: They’re Still Trying to Make Your Kids Eat Sugar

A new study shows they now target kids more, despite a self-regulated program to improve what young audiences see in ads.

(Photo: Flickr)

May 13, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The Klein kids of Medford, Massachusetts, are not unlike American youths anywhere, with one major exception: They watch almost no commercial television. The reason? All of the ads for Barbie Printed Fun Pop-Tarts, Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos, and other eye-catching, cartoon character–branded food products, which Ellery Klein, their mother, believes have an unhealthy influence on what American kids consume.

“I should decide what my kids eat, not a bunch of marketers trying to sell their subsidized corn syrup and sugar products by stuffing it into my kids,” said Klein, whose children are seven and five.

Klein’s anecdotal assertion is backed by many in the public health community. But despite extensive research on the negative health impacts of such ads—and repeated promises from the industry to self-regulate—a new study has found that little has changed.

In 2005, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies published a landmark study looking at the role advertising plays on the diets of children and found that food advertising “affects children’s preferences, purchase requests and short-term consumption.” Despite the decades-long presence of food marketing targeting children, the IOM report initiated the first meaningful national conversation on the issue, resulting in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative: a pledge by 17 of the biggest food companies to only direct advertisements to children for products that meet a “healthier” nutrition standard.

Eight years after the standards were implemented, however, the foods being marketed to kids are just as terrible for them as they were before. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that among the food companies that opted into the program, four of every five of their products advertised to children were classified in the poorest nutritional category, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines.

To conduct the study, researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Pennsylvania compared a sampling of advertisements aimed at children between 2007, before the CFBAI standards were implemented, and 2013. Using the HHS’s “Go, Slow, and Whoa” nutritional rating system (in which “Whoa” refers to the least nutritious foods), the researchers found that more than 80 percent of the ads reviewed in 2013 fell into the “Whoa” category—which was slightly higher than in 2007. The percentage of ads for products on the healthier end of the HHS’s spectrum was close to zero in 2013, down from 4 percent in 2007.

The report also pointed out that many companies do not participate in the program at all: Thirty percent of the ads reviewed were from companies not complying with the standards. For Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, which helped craft the standards, the latest research again underscores the need for food companies to do more to curb rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases in children.

“This study is important because the food industry is out there with the message that they’ve made a lot of improvements with the food that’s marketed to children,” Harris said. “In the past couple years, they’ve made changes to nutrition standards to certain foods. It’s important for independent researchers to take a look at what’s appearing on the ads and give a more unbiased opinion about the nutrition policy.”

According to Harris, a by-product of a voluntary, self-regulated program like CFBAI is a lack of uniformity in nutrition standards. For instance, among the products Kellogg’s has deemed appropriate to market directly to kids is Cinnamon Jacks, a cereal containing 10 grams of sugar in every 28-gram serving (12 grams of sugar is the maximum amount Kellogg allows in products marketed to children).

“When sugar can make up a third of a serving of cereal, or a company can advertise Popsicles if Vitamin C has been added, it doesn’t pass the common sense test,” Harris said.

What’s more, many food companies define “children’s programming” as entertainment for which kids make up more than 50 percent of a program’s main audience. This wouldn’t cover most radio stations, to which children are listening but may not be considered a program’s “audience.” In the United Kingdom—which has strict standards banning junk-food ads aimed at kids—researchers have found that food companies are simply shifting their ad spending to shows that fall just short of being considered kids’ programming.

This all begs the question: Is it time for the United States to join other nations in implementing a strong, compulsory law either regulating or outright banning the marketing of food to children? Several European countries, including the U.K., Ireland, Denmark, and Norway, have marketing restrictions in place, supported by a strong nutrition standard set forth by the World Health Organization. Last year, Brazil outlawed marketing to children outright, while Mexico pulled more than 40 percent of ads marketing soda and other unhealthy products under a strict new national law.

Earlier this year, a group of leading experts on obesity called for the WHO’s guidelines to be implemented worldwide and for the era of self-regulation among food corporations to end.

“Food supply targets cannot be left to the whim of multinational food companies, commodity markets and speculative financiers,” they wrote in a series of six papers published by Lancet Medical Journal, “but will need to be kept under tight supervision and regulation.”

Until that happens here, only one person will be regulating which ads the Klein kids outside Boston see: their mother.