Not enough is being done to keep kids away from those unhealthy bowls of sugary goodness, according to a study that the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released Monday.
The study found that the least nutritious cereals are those whose advertisements most aggressively target children. Reese’s Puffs, Corn Pops and Lucky Charms were the cereals researchers found to be the least nutritious.
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Of the 43 breakfast cereals the study’s investigators examined, those marketed to children were found to have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than those marketed to adults.
“There’s no reason that Reese’s Puffs should be marketed to kids instead of plain Cheerios,” said Jennifer Harris, the director for marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “If [companies] were serious about improving the nutrition quality for kids, they could just market the better products — they have other products [children] eat, but they’re not marketed.”
General Mills and Kellogg, the producers of the majority of the cereals that were designated the least healthy, spend a combined total of $146 million each year marketing cereal to children, according to the report.
Now, what was once a fairly straightforward marketing landscape, the study said, has “morphed into a complex web of persuasive messages,” which now includes not only television commercials but also cereal-themed Web sites and other multimedia content. For example, General Mills offers a child-oriented, game-filled Web site, Millsberry.com, at which the average visiting child spends 24 minutes per session, the study said. Every month, an average of 767,000 “young visitors” visit the site, the report states.
“It’s so clear that there are way bigger forces going on than personal responsibility when these food companies control so much of the marketing environment that children are exposed to constantly,” said Jackie Thompson, a research assistant at the Rudd Center.
Each year, the average pre-schooler sees 642 cereal advertisements, the study found, almost all of which are for cereals the study’s investigators found to be unhealthy.
“What if companies sent door-to-door salesmen around selling junk food, saying ‘Ma’am, can I talk to your kids alone?’ It’s unthinkable,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national organization that advocates on nutrition, health and food safety issues.. “[Companies] tell the kids, ‘Pester your parents until they buy you the stuff.’ ”
The report raises questions about whether companies can effectively decide what products are appropriate for them to market to children and suggests that the federal government should more actively set limits on the amount of sugar in foods advertised to children, researchers said.
To that end, the study recommends that cereals marketed to children meet the requirements the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency uses, which were developed by researchers without ties to the food industry.
But the health guidelines that currently apply to cereals advertised to children are “based on well-established scientific principles” and follow the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations, said Elaine Kolish, the vice president of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an organization that provides companies that market food and beverage products to children with marketing guidelines.
The initiative was launched by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, a national organization that works to foster a fair and accountable business environment, to encourage companies to market ‘better-for-you’ foods and beverages to children. In order to meet advertising regulation that were instituted two years ago, Kolish said that the average sugar content of children’s cereals dropped by one-half of a teaspoon to three teaspoons.
As to whether sugary cereals are a healthier alternative than skipping breakfast altogether, researchers interviewed said children should not have to decide between the two.
“If a kid grows up thinking Froot Loops is the norm instead of a treat, that’s pretty scary,” Thompson said.
The study was presented Monday at the Obesity Society’s 27th annual meeting in Washington D.C.