Television advertising gives children the wrong message about healthy eating and is creating a generation confused about the meaning of nutrition, writes Anthony Fletcher.
A new report has found that the more television kids watch, the more confused they are about which foods are - and which aren't - going to help them grow up strong and healthy.
"I'm not that surprised," Kristen Harrison, professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the report told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"So many diet ads and foods are framed as being healthy for an adult that needs to lose weight, but would be unhealthy for a kid who needs to build up muscles and doesn't need food that is nutritionally void."
Harrison claims that the problem with TV advertising is that it intentionally blurs the lines between diet and nutritional foods by "equating weight-loss benefits with nutritional benefits."
"The labels 'diet' and 'fat-free' suggest that these foods are good for them and make it harder for them to pick the 'right' answer," she said.
"Child television viewers are bombarded with health claims in television advertising. Given the plentitude of advertisements on television touting the health benefits of even the most nutritionally bankrupt of foods, child viewers are likely to become confused about which foods are in fact healthy."
This is a worrying trend. More than 64 percent of US adults are currently either overweight or obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and children are becoming increasingly susceptible to obesity-related illnesses.
"To me, even more frightening is the fact that 16 percent of the children in this country are obese," said Dr Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"That number has increased by at least two times over the last 20 years."
Another worrying fact is that Type II Diabetes, which used to be known as adult onset diabetes, is now increasingly being diagnosed in kids, adding to the cardiovascular risk profile of children.
"We have many children now who are not only overweight, but they also have high blood pressure, lipid abnormalities, and diabetes - all of the factors that increase the risk among adults for cardiovascular disease and stroke."
Obesity is now a mainstream issue and a serious concern, and Harrison believes that better nutritional awareness is vital to counter the corrosive influence that TV advertising is having on young diets. She applauds efforts to make foods healthier for kids - she picks out Quaker's flavoured oatmeal that now comes in a 50 percent reduced variety, reducing the amount of 'empty' calories as a good example, but believes television advertising to children needs to be restricted.
"We have this 'don't censor' mentality, but research shows that the persuasive intent of advertising is not picked up until the age of eight," she said. "These ads influence food purchase requests, which in turn influence what parents buy."
Harrison also cites previous studies that found that 97.5 percent of the food commercials appearing on weekend morning TV network programming were for unhealthy foods - defined as products containing significant amounts of fat, sodium, cholesterol or sugar. For weekend evening programming, 78.3 percent of the commercials were for unhealthy foods.
"Thus, television in general seems to be a source of nutritional misinformation, and children's exposure to television in general may increase their risk of becoming misinformed food consumers," said Harrison.
For the study, 134 children in the first through third grades were asked to respond to a questionnaire that measured their nutritional knowledge, nutritional reasoning and television viewing. The children displayed moderate nutritional reasoning, but this decreased with heavier TV viewing, especially for the choices involving fat-free and diet labels.
The economic estimates of the impact of obesity are astronomical. Approximately $52 billion in healthcare was attributed to obesity in 1995, according to Gerberding, and by 2003, this figure had increased to $75 billion.