More reasons why Big Food deserves a special place in hell

October 30th, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  8 Comments

From Medical News Today:

New research being presented at an obesity conference this week found that the cereals that are most frequently and aggressively marketed directly to American children as young as 2 were also the least healthy.

The study, reported in The Cereal Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score (FACTS) Report, was part funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and was conducted by researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. It is being presented at Obesity 2009, the 27th annual scientific meeting of The Obesity Society, in Washington on 27 October.

The researchers evaluated the nutrient composition and marketing of 115 cereal brands and 277 individual varieties and concluded there was pervasive targeting of children across all media platforms and in stores. The nutrition scoring system they used was developed by Oxford University.

Cereal manufacturers spend nearly 156 million dollars every year on marketing their cereals to children on television. They also market extensively on the Internet, in stores, through social media and on packaging, said the researchers.

19 of the brands (covering 47 varieties) were categorized as “child brands” because they marketed their cereals directly to children via television, the Internet, or through licensed fictional characters such as Dora the Explorer.

Lead investigator Dr Jennifer L Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center, told the press that:

“This research demonstrates just how far cereal companies have gone to target children in almost everything they do.”

The total amount of breakfast cereal marketing to children on television and computer screens, and at their eye-level in stores, combined with the appalling nutrient profile of the cereals most frequently marketed, is staggering,” she added.

The researchers found that not one the cereals targeted to children in the US meets the nutrition standard required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.

Among its findings the report highlighted that:

  • The average preschool child sees 642 cereal ads per year on television, and almost all of these are for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.
  • On the Internet, cereal companies make heavy use of marketing by sponsoring cereal websites and “advergames”.For example,, the website sponsored by General Mills, averages over three quarters of a million unique young visitors a month, who on average stay on the site for 24 minutes per visit.
  • The most frequent in-store advertiser was Kellogg, averaging 33.3 promotions per store and 9.5 special displays of its child and family brands over the 4-week period covered by the study.
  • General Mills markets to children more than any other cereal company and makes 6 of the 10 least healthy cereals advertised to children, including Reese’s Puffs, which is 41 per cent sugar and attracted the worst nutrition score.
  • Cereals marketed directly to children have 85 per cent more sugar, 65 per cent less fiber, and 60 per cent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults for adult consumption.
  • 42 per cent of cereals targeted at children contain artificial food dyes compared with 26 per cent of family cereals and 5 per cent of adult cereals.
  • Only 8 per cent of the cereals targeted directly to children are inside the sugar limits that would allow them to qualify for inclusion in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
  • Not one of the cereals targeted directly to children in the US meets the nutrition standard required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.
  • All cereals marketed directly to children meet the industry’s own nutrition standard for “better-for-you” foods. (And we know what bullshit that is.) These include: Cocoa Puffs (44 per cent sugar), Cap’n Crunch (44 per cent sugar), Froot Loops (41 per cent sugar), Lucky Charms (41 per cent sugar) and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (32 per cent sugar).

Although the food industry has pledged to reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children via the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, it appears to have had limited effect on the amount of cereal advertising to children on television, said the researchers.

“Ceding authority to the food companies to regulate themselves is a mistake,” said Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Dr Kelly Brownell. [No shit!?]

Dr Jim Marks, senior vice president and director of the Health Group, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said: “While cereal can be a healthy and convenient breakfast for children, this study shows that cereal companies are targeting children with their least healthy products. Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement.” [No shit again?!]

The report said children will eat unsweetened cereals if they are offered and it has proof of that. According to ABC News, Brownell said there were ways to train children to eat healthier food, “it’s all about what they’re exposed to”.

Food industry representatives interviewed by ABC News commented variously on the report. [No shit, really, I mean it this time?!]

Elanie Kolish, of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative disagreed with the report’s findings. She said she didn’t know how they came to arrive at the conclusions about the nutrition value of the children’s cereals covered by the Initiative because they are “low in calories” and “they provide an important source of these nutrients for kids’ diets”.

Kris Charles, a spokesman for Kellogg, said that children’s cereals that did not meet the company’s new Global Nutrient Criteria were recently either reformulated or the company stopped marketing them to children under 12. He also said in the last three years the company had reduced its advertising to the under 12s by 50 per cent.

General Mills’ spokeswoman Heidi Geller said that from a calorie and nutrient standpoint: “Cereal may be the best breakfast choice you could make. [What, if your other option is eating hydrochloric acid?] In fact, kids who eat cereal more frequently, including presweetened cereals, tend to weigh less than kids who eat cereal less frequently – and they are better nourished.”


  1. Daniel says:

    October 30th, 2009at 12:59 pm(#)

    It only takes a cursory look at the ingredients to see that most cereals are laden with sugar and HFCS and are terribly unhealthy.

    But the problem is these cereals exist because people buy them–in massive quantities, nationwide. They are exhaustively test-marketed to kids and it’s clear that kids like them and want them. The TV advertising simply cements the kids’ demand.

    I think the missing piece of the puzzle is on the demand side. In our home, we’ve permanently banned all branded, hyper-sweetened boxed cereals from our pantry. Parents need to do what’s right and buy cereal brands and other breakfast foods that ARE healthy. If there were strong demand for healthier cereals, you could bet cereal makers would put them on the stores shelves for us to buy.

    Casual Kitchen

  2. Paul says:

    October 30th, 2009at 2:25 pm(#)

    The cereal and grain industry finances the election of the US Congress, thus getting preferential treatment in the food ‘pyramid’.

    Ultimately, though, the solution is in personal responsibility, not limiting the speech of cereal companies.

  3. Irina says:

    October 31st, 2009at 8:56 pm(#)

    Aggressive advertising to two-year-olds is not speech, it is sociopathic behaviour.

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    November 1st, 2009at 5:19 am(#)

    Last night was Halloween. My husband dressed up in a quasi-psychotic costume that would probably give an adult nightmares. When really little kids came to the door, he removed the scary parts of it so as not to traumatize them. He could have argued that good parents would keep their kids away from the house with the scary man, or simply not allow them out. He could have claimed his right to free speech, and indeed he would have been well within his legal rights and privileges to do so.

    Yet as sensible adults we recognize that some things are inappropriate and damaging for children.

    We restrict their access to observing and experiencing violence (well, we used to) and sexuality (which seems to me less traumatic than violence). We would generally not tolerate marketers that encouraged children to smoke, consume toxic chemicals, shoot guns, or engage in kinky threesomes, all of which are presently more or less legal activities. We assume, in short, that “free speech” has boundaries within particular contexts, and begin with the understanding that some audiences have vulnerabilities that should determine our choices as ethical actors. We also, as ethical actors, do not encourage them to do things that cause harm.

  5. Amy Haines says:

    November 1st, 2009at 8:19 am(#)

    Krista, you said that as sensible adults we recognize some things are inappropriate for children, and I agree wholeheartedly. It is the duty of parents to be the arbiters of what junk TV, junk food, and junk information comes into the household to be consumed by their progeny. However, peer pressure amongst preschoolers (and every age thereafter, apparently) is difficult to overcome.

    Advertisers capitalize on 1)consumer desire to have it all, and 2) consumer ignorance in the face of wanting it all. I don’t begrudge advertisers their place in the food web; after all, there are plenty of people out there willing to buy into the story psycho-social well-being they promise with every image and slogan that appears in print and televised media.

    It is the duty of the consumer to be informed as to what is healthy and what is not, and to make the choices with their dollars as to what type of advertising is done. Government fiat or corporate self-policing does little to fight the tidal wave of misinformation; marketers will always find a way. Until their profit margins on unhealthy foods begin to shrink, little will change, I fear, despite how much government regulation is forced upon the industry.

    It seems that the best way to become ethical actors, and to advocate for good ethics in our choices, is education. It always seems to come back to that for me; but then, I am a teacher by choice and by trade, and showing young people that they have the ability to take information and make choices based on their critical judgement of that information is my life’s ambition. It is hard to teach very young children to do this, especially when fun cartoon animals advocate consumption of sugar-laden foods in order to be “healthy.”

    Perhaps parents need to become better educated; I think most already are, but take the easy way out and give in rather than put their parental feet down firmly and say “NO, you may not have that crap!” I am facing this dilemma right now with my little one, and I can tell you the resulting temper tantrum fades quickly and she will come to the table to eat her homemade applesauce atop plain oatmeal, mashed chicken and carrots, and broccoli and lentils. Hunger is her prime motivation at that point, and while I do not starve her into submission, I make it clear that the food I am giving her is the only food she is getting. Ice cream is no substitute for dinner, no matter that her cousins get to eat it in lieu of vegetables.

    Food is one area where I will not allow my daughter to lose to peer pressure. Less aggressive marketing to children is a start, but the road from grocery store to a child’s stomach ought to be shepherded carefully by a parental figure, temper tantrums be damned. An hour of crying over the loss of a dish of Lucky Charms (which would never be in my home anyway) is far better than dealing with a lifetime of poor health and even worse eating habits.

  6. Noel Lynne Figart says:

    November 2nd, 2009at 7:04 am(#)

    While I’m all for truth in advertising (no, Froot Loops are NOT a healthy choice, for God’s sake!), I think the problem is bigger than that. Parents don’t have any self-discipline, so they’re hopeless in teaching any to their kids. (I say this as a parent of a teenager).

    Parents need to learn that they’re not being emotionally abusive just because their kids are sad at being told no. No, you can’t have sugar-loaded cereal for breakfast, no you can’t go out to play before your homework is done, I don’t care if the rest of your friends are $100 t-shirts that they’ll grow out of in six months, you’re only doing that if you figure out a way to earn the money yourself.

    We act like we’re somehow helpless in the face of a five year old. How absurd! I’m fast approaching the day when my son is bigger than I am, and I freely admit I’m biting my nails about that one. But a toddler? PLEASE!

  7. Chris says:

    November 2nd, 2009at 8:01 am(#)

    When I was young, my parents wouldn’t let me have any of the child unfriendly cereals and for a long time I felt like I was being put upon given how fun and tasty the boxes and ads looked. Looking back I now realize that I owe my parents thanks and I feel guilty for my former feelings of being hard done by.

  8. Ginger Baker says:

    November 2nd, 2009at 10:56 pm(#)

    As a parent of a 6 year old and a 4 year old, I have never had problems with cereal-whining. The kids do like the occasional cereal breakfast (and once in a blue moon have one – always a good muesli, never junk) but it’s almost never kept in the house so they wouldn’t bother going on about it. For that matter no pre-packaged foods are – the kids are used to eating what we cook, from scratch, and this is totally normal for them. However, thinking it over, I am quite certain that the fact that we don’t watch TV makes a good deal of difference. While the kids sometimes watch a TV show with their grandmother (usually commercial-free) or a DVD here at home (definitely commercial-free), this is definitely not a commercial-barraged household, a decision that I made long ago for my own good and realize now how very beneficial it has been indeed.

    My kids at the supermarket shriek in excitement at kale :-) and beets! (Seriously, it’s a bit odd though I am careful never to tell them that!)

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