April 1, 2008 - Nine in 10 food ads aimed at kids sell high-fat, high-salt,
high-sugar, or low-nutrient foods.
The finding comes from a study of 27.5 hours of children's programs that ran
on a single Saturday morning -- May 7, 2005 -- in Washington, D.C. During that
time, advertisers inserted more than four hours of ads, half of which
marketed food or restaurants to kids.
Ameena Batada, DrPH, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and
colleagues analyzed the nutritional content of the advertised foods. Restaurant
ads were considered to promote unhealthy foods if more than half of the
restaurant's children's menu items were high in fats, salt, sugar, or were low
The result: Most foods advertised to children are:
"We found wide discrepancies between what health experts recommend
children eat and what marketing promotes as desirable to eat," Batada and
colleagues report in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of the American
There were some positive things about the ads. Forty-two percent of ads that
promoted non-nutritious foods offered health or nutrition messages, too. For
example, an ad for Airhead Fruit Spinners fruit-flavored snacks told kids they
came "with real fruit flavor and vitamin C-charged crystals."
And 47% of the food ads promoted exercise, such as the Cheetos ad
that showed kids wakeboarding after eating the cheese-flavored snack. Moreover,
76% of the ads had explicit health messages, such as the one noting that
cereals are only "part of a complete/balanced/nutritious
Interestingly, the ads analyzed in the study aired in 2005. That December,
the Institute of Medicine found that direct-to-children marketing by junk food
and restaurant companies is
damaging kids' health. A 2006 study showed that
food ads aimed at preschoolers try to build brand loyalty for fast-food
restaurants and sugary cereals. A 2007 study found that every day, advertisers
beam an average of 21 food-product ads at American pre-teens.
These studies, too, were based on 2005 data.
Advertisers say things have changed, and have set up a self-monitoring
system. This is the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the industry-funded
National Advertising Review Council.
However, in a 2005 letter to the secretary of the Federal Trade Commission
-- still prominently featured on the CARU web site -- the group's director
notes that it is not in the health business.
"[CARU] was not established to be the arbiter of what products should or
should not be manufactured, sold, or marketed to children, or to decide what
foods are 'healthy,' or to tell parents or children what they should or
shouldn't buy," the letter states. It goes on to note that "food
products are not inherently dangerous or inappropriate -- all foods may be
safely incorporated into a balanced diet."
Batada and colleagues suggest that health-message programs launched by food
companies and trade organizations may do more harm than good.
"When coupled with foods of poor nutritional quality, health/nutrition
and physical activity messages are likely to be misleading and perhaps do more
to promote unhealthful eating than to promote health," they write.
In 2005, Batada and colleagues found, every single ad for snack foods,
candy, restaurants, beverages, and breakfast pastries promoted high-fat,
high-sugar, high-salt, or low-nutrient products. These ads made up 63% of food
ads aimed at kids.
Whether this remains true in 2008 remains to be seen -- perhaps as soon as
next Saturday morning.