Climbing rates of childhood obesity in the US have placed the food industry in the spotlight in recent years, with the nutritional content of products and companies' marketing practices being increasingly scrutinized. A number of initiatives have been set up in an effort to ensure responsible advertising to children, such as the Council of Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was established in 2006 as a voluntary self-regulation program for industry.
However, some organizations and individuals, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have complained that the self-regulatory approach does not go far enough, and this latest report could add weight to that claim.
Researchers found that cereals marketed directly to children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber, and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed for adult consumption. In addition, of the 19 cereal brands that were marketed directly to children, not one meets the nutrition criteria required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom. But every one meets industry’s own standards for ‘better-for-you’ foods, the report said.
“In spite of their pledges to reduce unhealthy marketing to children, the large cereal companies continue to target children with their least healthy products,” it said.
Researchers analyzed 277 individual cereal varieties across 115 brands. Brands were identified as ‘child brands’ if they were marketed directly to children on television, the internet, or through licensed characters, such as Dora the Explorer. They found that preschool-age children in the US see an average of 642 cereal commercials a year on television alone, “almost all for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.”
Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Kelly Brownell said: “Ceding authority to the food companies to regulate themselves is a mistake. The companies want to be seen as public health allies making good faith efforts to change, but their actions indicate otherwise.”
Six of the ten cereals that fared worst were from General Mills, which also advertised to children more than any other cereal company.
According to the report, cereal companies spend almost $156m a year on advertising to children.
A list of the ten worst-faring cereals according to nutrition score can be found here.
A full copy of the report can be accessed here.