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.
These studies, too, were based on 2005 data. Advertisers say things have changed, and have set up a self-monitoring system. This is the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the industry-funded National Advertising Review Council.
However, in a 2005 letter to the secretary of the Federal Trade Commission -- still prominently featured on the CARU web site -- the group's director notes that it is not in the health business.
"[CARU] was not established to be the arbiter of what products should or should not be manufactured, sold, or marketed to children, or to decide what foods are 'healthy,' or to tell parents or children what they should or shouldn't buy," the letter states. It goes on to note that "food products are not inherently dangerous or inappropriate -- all foods may be safely incorporated into a balanced diet."
Batada and colleagues suggest that health-message programs launched by food companies and trade organizations may do more harm than good.
"When coupled with foods of poor nutritional quality, health/nutrition and physical activity messages are likely to be misleading and perhaps do more to promote unhealthful eating than to promote health," they write.
In 2005, Batada and colleagues found, every single ad for snack foods, candy, restaurants, beverages, and breakfast pastries promoted high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, or low-nutrient products. These ads made up 63% of food ads aimed at kids.
Whether this remains true in 2008 remains to be seen -- perhaps as soon as next Saturday morning.