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Study: Too Much Sugar in Drinks Marketed to Kids

Report Suggests That Many Drinks That Sound Healthy Have Lots of Sugar and Calories

Advertising of Kids' Beverages

The researchers also analyzed advertising on television, the Internet, social media sites, and mobile apps.

Many beverage companies got behind the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in November 2006. The initiative is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier choices.

The report says that many -- although not all -- of these companies are not making good on their promises.

The exposure of children and teens to TV ads hawking unhealthy sugary soda doubled from 2008 to 2010, the study shows. The companies also seem to be increasingly targeting African-American and Hispanic youth, the new report suggests. In fact, African-American children and teens saw as much as 90% more ads than the white children and teens.

The study also shows that energy drinks are marketed to children and teens even though the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly states these beverages are not appropriate for them.

Many beverage companies are also reaching kids and teens where they live -- namely social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the study shows. Twenty-one sugary drink brands had YouTube channels in 2010.

Industry Perspective

Susan K. Neely, American Beverage Association president and CEO, says in a written statement that there has been a "dramatic change" in food and beverage advertising during children's programming. 

"The people at our member companies -- many of whom are parents themselves -- are delivering on their commitment to advertise only water, juice and milk on programming for children under 12."

What's more, the beverage industry has also removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools in favor of lower-calorie, smaller portion drinks, she says.

"This report is another attack by known critics in an ongoing attempt to single out one product as the cause of obesity when both common sense and widely accepted science have shown that the reality is far more complicated," says Neely.

Still, Scott Kahan, MD, an obesity expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he is concerned about these trends.

"Decades of social science research show that marketing affects all of our preferences and choice, but kids are sitting ducks for advertisers," he says. "Putting a character like Shrek on food makes it taste better to kids."

In recent years, there has been a shift from focusing on preventing infections in children to concern about chronic diseases such as diabetes that are nutrition-related. "We wouldn't let our kids be attacked by ads for germ-infected products that would make them sick, but this study shows we are allowing them to be attacked by marketers of unhealthy foods that will make them sick," Kahan says.

He says that voluntary pledges by industry may not be enough. "There needs to be serious discussion about what the rules should be and who needs to play be them."

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