In the quiet days leading up to Christmas, the Federal Trade Commission released an important new report updating figures on how much money food companies spend marketing food to children and teens.
While companies have made a few modest improvements in marketing less unhealthy—hard to call much of it “healthy”—foods to youth, the overall findings are disappointing. Though the numbers are new, our conclusions are the same: industry self-regulation is not accomplishing enough to protect children’s health from junk food marketing.
As a mother, I don’t trust that food companies making unhealthy foods are on my side.
Food companies submitted their own in-house research demonstrating how food marketing drives children’s requests. The goal of advertising aimed at children is to make them whine, pester and beg until they get what they want—exactly the kind of behavior that leads to an unpleasant experience at the grocery store.
The bottom line is, food companies want to train my kid to beg me for foods that aren’t good for him.
Let’s look at cereal, the category where most money was spent on marketing to children ages 2-11. Thanks to the food industry’s self-regulatory efforts, cereals with 13 or more grams of added sugar are for the most part no longer marketed to children. Yet, many sugary children’s cereals fall just below 13 grams of sugar per serving (check out this list), and the food industry spent 63 percent of its cereal advertising dollars on cereals with 10 to 12 grams of sugar. Cereals with licensed characters on the packaging contained fewer whole grains than those that didn’t.
That cartoon character may make a child smile, but the negative digestive effects thanks to lack of fiber sure won’t.
For older kids and teens (ages 12-17), food companies spent the most money marketing carbonated beverages. Companies are increasing their spending on “new media” advertising, including online and text messaging and the carbonated beverages marketed to teens in those areas contained more sugar than those advertised in traditional media.
My son is far from teenage years, but these numbers just give me a headache. It’s not just that food companies are making bubbly sugar water look cool, but they’re using research teams to stay one step ahead of parents, learning how teens like to communicate and using that knowledge to promote the unhealthiest beverages.
The most positive improvements have occurred thanks to changes in schools, where the caloric content of drinks sold fell by 30 percent. Water and 100% juice only comprise 16% of drinks marketed to children and 8% of drinks marketed to teens overall, but in schools, those numbers jump to 35% of drinks marketed to children and 29% of drinks marketed to teens.
The USDA is currently sitting on an opportunity to further improve that situation by releasing strong nutrition standards for all foods, not just school meals, sold in schools. What a relief to think that students could spend an entire day in school without seeing an ad for, or being able to buy, soda, potato chips or candy—if the USDA does it’s job.
Industry self-regulation clearly isn’t doing enough to reduce junk food marketing to youth. Click here, and take a moment to let President Obama know that you want to see changes in his second term.
For more information on food marketing to kids, check out our report, “It Pays to Advertise: Junk Food Marketing to Children.”
Sarah Borron is a researcher on the Food Team at Food & Water Watch. She has worked on a variety of food, agriculture and anti-hunger issues. She served as a Congressional Hunger Fellow addressing food policy council development in Eugene, Oregon and Washington, DC. At the Community Food Security Coalition, she advocated for Farm to School legislation as part of the 2004 Child Nutrition Act. She also developed the Advocacy and Research Department at the Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas. Sarah holds Masters degree in Agriculture, Food, and the Environment from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a Bachelors degree in Environmental Studies from Denison University.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise