On the plus side, the research - published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just before Christmas (click here) - reveals that calories, sodium, sugar, saturated fat and trans fat in foods promoted to children all decreased slightly in the three-year period studied, while levels of fiber, whole grain, calcium, Vitamin D, and potassium all increased.
Meanwhile, the nutritional profile of ‘children’s meals’ in quick service restaurants also improved over the period, such that kids’ options were consistently more healthy than standard menu items in 2009, according to ‘A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report’.
Changes generally too small to be nutritionally meaningful
However, changes to snacks promoted to kids were minimal or non-existent, claimed the FTC.
“None of the snacks marketed to children in either 2006 or 2009 met the FDA labeling claim standard for low calorie… [And] virtually no snacks marketed to children met FDA’s standard for a good source of fiber or contained more than 50% whole grain.”
Likewise, just 3% of cereal marketed to children met FDA’s standard for a ‘low sodium’ claim in that year, while the marketing of cereals containing mostly refined grains still accounted for a whopping 86% of the children’s market in 2009, it claimed (although this last figure was challenged by food industry executives who told us it was inconsistent with their data).
“In 2009, the cereals most heavily marketed to children were least nutritious", said the FTC. "Cereal marketed to children averaged 2g more sugar per serving and half the whole grain content of cereal marketed to older audiences.
“Cereal marketed to children with licensed characters or other cross-promotions had less than half the whole grain of cereal marketed to children without cross-promotions.”
And while there were small nutritional improvements across the board for cereal marketed to children and teens from 2006 to 2009, “those changes were generally too small to be nutritionally meaningful in the context of the daily diet”, it concluded.
For example, cereals marketed to children aged 2-11 in 2009 had just 0.9g less sugar per serving than in 2006 and 1.6g more whole grain per serving.
Widespread media industry participation is lacking
Total spending on food marketing to young people aged 2-17 dropped from $2.1bn in 2006 to $1.79bn in 2009, said the FTC.
However, much of this decrease could be attributed to a sharp drop in costly TV advertising, it explained, noting that there had been a correspondingly sharp increase in spending on (less costly) new media, which meant that overall, children were still exposed to a significant amount of food marketing.
While the FTC praised some food manufacturers for their reformulation efforts, it criticized media and entertainment companies, many of which it claimed “do not apply any nutrition standards to foods promoted with their popular children’s characters or programs”.
It added: “There has been no effort to date by media companies to work with the CFBAI [Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative] or participate in an industry-wide initiative addressing childhood obesity.
“Unlike the food industry, where a substantial majority of those engaging in marketing to children participate in self-regulation to limit food marketing to nutritious choices, widespread media industry participation is lacking.”
Firms should not promote foods that promote obesity and diabetes
Reaction to the report, which serves as a follow-up to the FTC’s 2008 report on food marketing requested by Congress, was mixed, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) pointing out that “the overwhelming majority of foods advertised to kids is still of poor nutritional quality”.
The CSPI added: “Unfortunately the food industry succeeded in killing the federal Interagency Working Group’s excellent voluntary guidelines.
“Unlike Disney and Qubo, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network have not agreed to limit unhealthy food advertising during their children's television programming or on their websites.
“If industry wants to continue to enjoy its extraordinary freedom to self-regulate in this area, [its] messages must not promote foods that promote obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related diseases in children.”
Marion Nestle: ‘Dismayed’ at the lack of real progress
Writing in her FoodPolitics blog on December 28, Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said: “If you are a half-full type, you will rejoice that food companies are voluntarily improving the nutritional quality of their products even if the improvements are small.
“If you are a half-empty type (which, in this case, I am), you will be dismayed at the lack of real progress in reducing the marketing of junk foods to kids.”
General Mills: Leading the way on cereal reformulation
However, a General Mills spokeswoman told FoodNavigator-USA that the firm had made "extensive changes across our cereal portfolio, increasing whole grain, reducing sugar and reducing sodium. And that includes cereals advertised to children. This is an area in which we feel we’ve actually been leading the way."
She added: "In 2009 we announced our commitment to reduce sugar in our cereals advertised to children under 12 to single-digit grams of sugar per serving. As a result, all General Mills kid cereals are already at 10g of sugar or less per serving, with some already at 9g, down from 11-15g in 2007.
"We were particularly pleased to see the references to whole grain. This is another area in which General Mills has led the way. We actually converted our entire line of Big G cereals to include at least 9g of whole grain per serving, and today more than 20 General Mills cereals now deliver 16g or more of whole grain per serving.
"And all General Mills cereals have whole grain as the first ingredient. As a result, General Mills now delivers 37.5 million whole grain servings per day – a 50 percent increase in whole grain servings since 2004."