Food and Behaviour Research

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2 Aug 2011 - Wall Street Journal - Progress, Not Perfection, on Reducing Kids' Exposure to Ads for Unhealthful Foods

by Katherine Hobson

Researchers crunched TV ratings data and found that exposure to ads for less healthful foods and drinks fell 38% for kids aged 2 to 5 and 28% for kids 6 to 11 between 2003 and 2009.

Kids are seeing fewer ads for foods and drinks high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium, a new study shows.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago crunched Nielsen Media Research ratings data and found that exposure to ads for less healthful foods and drinks fell 38% for kids aged 2 to 5 and 28% for kids 6 to 11 between 2003 and 2009. Overall exposure to food-related ads in general fell, too, as kids saw fewer ads for cereals, sweets, beverages and snacks.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” says Lisa Powell, lead author of the study and a senior research scientist at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy. But she notes that in 2009, 86% of the food and drink ads seen by kids were for foods high in saturated fats, sugar or sodium — still an awfully large proportion, though it’s down from 94% in 2003.

The study, published online in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, notes that given that last stat, the food industry’s self-regulation efforts still need beefing up, including greater participation by fast-food companies in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a project of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. CFBAI’s food and beverage company members pledge to eliminate or restrict their ads directed at kids.

In contrast to the trend seen for other types of foods, younger kids saw 21% more fast food ads between 2003 and 2009 and older kids saw 31% more. In a statement, National Restaurant Association Director of Nutrition and Healthy Living Joy Dubost said the study “did not address the nutritional content of the advertisements and failed to establish whether the ads met the nutritional standards set by the authors.” Many fast-food ads are also for the restaurant itself rather than a specific product, Dubost said.

Changing the way companies market food to kids is a hot topic, and the landscape has shifted since the end of the study.

Last September, CFBAI members said they had harmonized their definition of child-directed programming, and now no participant will advertise on shows where 35% or more of the audience consists of kids aged 2 to 11, according to Elaine Kolish, director of CFBAI. She takes issue with the study’s focus on all ads kids are exposed to rather than just those directed at them.

Meantime, on the question of what constitutes a healthful or unhealthful food, the Obama administration in April proposed voluntary nutritional standards for foods marketed at kids and teens, both in terms of what to avoid (the usual baddies: saturated fat, added sugar and too much sodium) and what to include (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein).

CFBAI members responded with their own uniform food-specific guidelines for food marketing, replacing criteria from individual companies. The new standards include caps on calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, depending on the food item — though the New York Times noted that only one-third of the companies’ advertised products would have to be reformulated to meet the standards.

All of these changes might lead to further improvements, says Powell.