Minorities tend toward unhealthy cereal

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Photo by Robert Peck.

African-American homes with children are more likely to buy unhealthy youth-oriented cereals than any other demographic group, a recent study by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has revealed.

The study, published on Oct. 25, 2011 in the scientific journal Public Health Nutrition, found a negative correlation between the nutritiousness of the cereal and the likelihood of minority families purchasing it. Jennifer Harris, the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives and one of the study’s three co-authors, attributed the discrepancy in the consumption of these unhealthy cereals to television advertising targeted at children, which has a disproportionate effect on the habits of African-American families because television viewing rates are 50 to 60 percent higher for children in African-American homes than in white homes. Harris said that African-American and Latino homes bought more unhealthy cereals because they were more heavily exposed to advertising for unhealthy children’s cereals.

“Our study shows that marketing really does affect sales,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, this seems to be having the biggest effect on black households.”

Harris said the study found cereals marketed specifically to kids were 13 times more likely to be purchased than cereals that were not marketed at all, and three times more likely to be purchased than cereals that were only marketed to adults.

The Rudd Center conducted the study by using data from the market research group the Nielsen Company. Harris said the company produces a device that grocery shoppers can use to record information about their purchases at the time of sale by scanning the bar codes of the products. From there, the Nielsen Company made a database compiling information about the purchases made by participants with those participants’ demographic information, she said. Among other factors, the study made note of the ethnicity, income and education level of participating shoppers.

Harris said that the Rudd Center compared the purchasing data collected by the Nielsen Company with information about cereal marketing and nutrition collected by a previous Rudd Center study. Using this cross-reference, researchers were able to reach conclusions about how exposure to marketing affected purchases, and about which types of cereals were most heavily marketed. Nutrition was rated on a scale based on the healthfulness of the cereal, and all of the cereals primarily marketed to children scored in bottom two tiers nutritionally.

“The most surprising thing to us is the effectiveness of marketing,” Harris said. In addition to the 13-fold increase in sales for cereals marketed directly to children, the study also found that cereals marketed to families as a whole were 10 times more likely to sell than nonmarketed cereals.

In the study’s conclusion, Harris and co-authors Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center, and Katia Castetbon, head of the Nutritional Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit at the French National Institute for Health Surveillance, said making cereals marketed to children more nutritious could lead to an increase in the health of all young people. More broadly, Harris said the study is part of an ongoing effort by the Rudd Center to raise awareness about the harmful effects of marketing unhealthy products to children.

In a November email to the News, Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, said her group and others like it use Rudd Center studies like this one to persuade food companies to advertise healthy alternatives more heavily.

“We’ve used the studies to show that companies need to do a better job with food marketing to kids,” Wootan said. “The Rudd studies show that companies continue to market a lot of unhealthy beverages, fast food and cereal. I think their studies do make an impact — they draw attention to the issues, put pressure on the companies and inform policy makers.”

The Rudd Center released a previous study on the effect of unhealthy cereals advertising in October 2009.

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