Child Obesity Concerns Prompt Shift in Food Ads

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The food industry spends about $10 billion dollars on advertising each year, much of it for sugary food aimed at kids. But with concern over childhood obesity, the biggest food companies are under pressure to make changes. There are no federal laws that limit what sorts of foods companies can advertise to children.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If Captain Crunch seems like an old friend to you, and snap, crackle and pop are almost like relatives, that is a testament to how well cereal ads work. The food industry spends about $10 billion on advertising each year, much of it on sugary food aimed at kids. But with concern over childhood obesity, the biggest food companies are under pressure to make some changes.

Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY: There are no federal laws that limit what sorts of foods companies can advertise to children. But last year the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Science put the food industry on alert. An IOM panel took a hard look at the ads that kids see most.

Ms. VICKY RIDEOUT (Kaiser Family Foundation): What the IOM found is that right now the nutritional profile of the foods that are advertised to kids is overwhelmingly on the side of products that are not that healthy for kids, that are high in sugar, fat and sodium. And they'd like to see that nutritional profile flipped.

AUBREY: Vicky Rideout is the vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. She studies children, media and health. Rideout says lots of research has shown that kids who spend a lot of time in front of the TV are more likely to be overweight.

Ms. RIDEOUT: And the question is why is that? Is it just because of the sedentary nature of media use or are there other factors that play as well?

AUBREY: The research suggest kids are influenced by the type of ads they see and how often they see them matters too. A recent analysis found children between the ages of two and seven, so the very youngest viewers, see an average of 12 food ads every day on television. That's about 4,400 over the course of the year.

Ms. RIDEOUT: The tweens, kids who are like eight to 12 years old, see an average of 21 food ads each and every day for a total of about 7,600 a year, and the vast majority are for products, primarily candy, snacks, sugared cereals, fast food sodas, and so on.

AUBREY: Television is just one of the many ways that kids connect to the world these days.

Ms. MARGO WOOTAN (Center for Science and the Public Interest): There's Internet marketing, radio, kids magazines, licensed characters, cellphones, and on and on and on. Our kids are just growing up in this media-saturated culture.

AUBREY: Margo Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science and the Public Interest. The advocacy group became well known for exposing the calories and fat found in Chinese food and movie popcorn. Now the group is trying to convince food companies to stop marketing junkie foods to first-graders.

Ms. WOOTAN : We've gotten to a point where the diet that is marketed to children is light years apart from the diet that health experts recommend that children eat.

AUBREY: Wootan says there seems to be gathering momentum for change. In addition to the Institute of Medicine report, the Federal Trade Commission is getting in the act. It's nudging the industry to adopt some new voluntary standards.

And last December, in partnership with the Better Business Bureau, 11 food companies, including Kraft, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, and General Mills pledged to devote more of their advertising budgets to healthier foods.

Ms. WOOTAN: Companies are taking some reactive steps to try to avoid legislation, additional regulations, or being dragged into court.

AUBREY: Whether all that pressure will translate into an overhaul of advertising practices remains to be seen.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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