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Children's Health

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91% of Kid Food Ads Unhealthy

Saturday Morning Ads for Kids Sell Fats, Salt, Sugar, Low Nutrition
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 1, 2008 - Nine in 10 food ads aimed at kids sell high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, or low-nutrient foods.

The finding comes from a study of 27.5 hours of children's programs that ran on a single Saturday morning -- May 7, 2005 -- in Washington, D.C. During that time, advertisers inserted more than four hours of ads, half of which marketed food or restaurants to kids.

Ameena Batada, DrPH, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and colleagues analyzed the nutritional content of the advertised foods. Restaurant ads were considered to promote unhealthy foods if more than half of the restaurant's children's menu items were high in fats, salt, sugar, or were low in nutrients.

The result: Most foods advertised to children are:

  • High in added sugars (59% of ads)
  • High in total fat content (19% of ads)
  • High in sodium (18% of ads)
  • High in saturated or trans fats

"We found wide discrepancies between what health experts recommend children eat and what marketing promotes as desirable to eat," Batada and colleagues report in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

There were some positive things about the ads. Forty-two percent of ads that promoted non-nutritious foods offered health or nutrition messages, too. For example, an ad for Airhead Fruit Spinners fruit-flavored snacks told kids they came "with real fruit flavor and vitamin C-charged crystals."

And 47% of the food ads promoted exercise, such as the Cheetos ad that showed kids wakeboarding after eating the cheese-flavored snack. Moreover, 76% of the ads had explicit health messages, such as the one noting that cereals are only "part of a complete/balanced/nutritious breakfast."

Interestingly, the ads analyzed in the study aired in 2005. That December, the Institute of Medicine found that direct-to-children marketing by junk food and restaurant companies is damaging kids' health. A 2006 study showed that food ads aimed at preschoolers try to build brand loyalty for fast-food restaurants and sugary cereals. A 2007 study found that every day, advertisers beam an average of 21 food-product ads at American pre-teens.

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