Advertising healthy food to kids: Will the food industry keep its promise?


little girl watching television

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With the voice of television a perpetual presence in the majority of U.S. homes, the marketing of unhealthy food to children has become a serious problem. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the effectiveness of industry self-regulation and found that, despite promises, there has been little improvement in the nutritional quality of foods advertised to children.


TV dinners

Children watch a whole lot of TV these days. According to a 2010 report from the University of Michigan, kids aged between 6 and 11 spend around 28 hours a week in front of the box with the vast majority of this viewing being broadcast television (rather than DVDs). A natural consequence of all that screen time is an exposure to a great deal of food advertising. During typical programming kids see more than six ads per hour — that's about 2 minutes 21 seconds or almost 4 percent of TV time dedicated to food advertising.

Previous public concerns about the way in which televised food advertising contributes to childhood obesity led to the food industry adopting a program of self-regulation. In 2006, warnings from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) about the risk to children's health triggered a debate that led to the formation of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).


Guarding the guardians

Seventeen of the nation's largest food companies agreed to join up to safeguard health, promising that only ads for healthy foods would be directed at children. Critically, the nutritional standards were specified by each company — each got to draw up its own definition of "healthy." The Kellogg Company, for example, said that their child-targeted advertising would only feature food that contained a maximum of 200 calories, 2g saturated fat/0g trans fat, 230mg sodium, and 12g added sugar per serving.

The new study fundamentally questions the effectiveness of self-regulation. The researchers found that four of every five foods advertised to children (80.5%) are classified in the poorest nutritional category specified by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines. According to lead investigator Dr. Dale Kunkel from the University of Arizona, Tucson, "the longstanding pattern favoring nutritionally deficient food products over more-healthy items clearly persisted despite the advent of industry self-regulation. This outcome occurred largely because participants in self-regulation achieved no significant improvement in the nutritional quality of their advertised foods between 2007 and 2013."

When they looked at the way in which regulation by the CFBAI had worked, Kunkel's team made two important discoveries. First was that those companies participating had completely fulfilled all their commitments by advertising only products that met those nutritional guidelines they had set for themselves. As far as advertising limitations and licensed characters for healthy food were concerned, the companies had done their duty. Second, however, it was revealed that the nutritional standards set by the companies did not, in themselves, "reflect high benchmarks." Many companies had classified products as healthy if just a small portion of the undesirable ingredient was removed from the original formulation. This, the team found, meant that the "healthier foods" advertised to children were actually in the poorest nutritional category.


Whoa there

The researchers compared a sample of ads aired in 2007 — before regulation — with an equivalent sample from 2013 — after regulation was introduced. For a ten-week period, one episode of each regularly scheduled children's program that aired between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. across five networks — including Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon — was recorded and analyzed.

The advertised products were categorized according to the Department of Health and Human Services' own classifications. Their system rates products in the three groups: Go, Slow, and Whoa. Go foods are rich in nutrients and low in calories, fat, and added sugar, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grain breads/cereals, low-fat yogurt, nonfat milk and diet soda. Slow foods are higher in fat, added sugar and calories. These might include hamburgers, peanut butter, waffles, pasta, pure fruit juice and 2 percent milk. Whoa foods are high in calories, fat and added sugar, and are low in nutrients. In this category are fried chicken, cookies, ice cream, whole milk and soda.

The team's findings were eye-opening. In 2007, 79.4 percent of food ads were for Whoa products — in 2013, this figure increased to 80.5 percent. Slow product ads climbed from 16.5 percent in 2007 to 18.4 percent in 2013. Ads for genuinely health Go products were so rare, they said, that "no statistical comparisons could be made." In addition, 30 percent of all food ads were from companies that had chosen not participate in self-regulation at all — the two most prominent, Chuck E. Cheese (pizza) and Topps Company (candy), accounted for 14.7 percent and 9 percent of all food ads, respectively.


Baby steps

Pointing to the general ineffectiveness of industry self-regulation, Kunkel says his study "demonstrates that no significant decline in the proportion of food ads devoted to unhealthy Whoa products occurred as a result of self-regulation, even among CFBAI participants. Given that corporate profit concerns unavoidably mitigate more-stringent industry-based reforms, continued reliance upon self-regulation to resolve this problem seems destined to yield only modest benefits."

"Deficiency in the nutritional standards employed by industry self-regulation has already been recognized as a critical shortcoming," says Kunkel."In the face of pleas for advertising reform, the food industry has achieved what might be labeled as baby steps." The team has tough words for the future of food marketing: "With a persistent national obesity crisis, the failure to act more strongly holds adverse implications for America's children," says Kunkel As the IOM suggested "in 2006, governmental restrictions on advertising practices will likely be required to end the predominance of unhealthy products in child-targeted food marketing. Such steps are increasingly being pursued by countries worldwide."