Kids Have Easy Access to Junk Food

Children are bombarded by snack food ads on television — and most of their schools have fast food restaurants within walking distance, according to two new studies. The articles on juvenile health appear in the new issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Michelle Trudeau reports.

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Two new studies confirm something that most parents already know: Children are often surrounded by junk food advertising and fast-food restaurants. As Michelle Trudeau reports the research comes at a time when the obesity rate among children has more than doubled.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

The first study is on television advertising by Kristin Harrison from the University of Illinois.

Ms. KRISTIN HARRISON (University of Illinois): What we studied was advertising embedded within the television programs that children ages six to 11 watch most.

TRUDEAU: She analyzed the top 40 hours of television programming that children viewed in 2004. According to the Nielsen ratings these included typical children's shows like "SpongeBob" and also more adult shows like "Seinfeld" and "American Idol." Within these 40 hours there were over 400 food ads. Harrison categorized them.

Ms. HARRISON: When we look at all the advertisements together, candy, sweets, soft drinks and fast and convenience foods make up over 80 percent of all of the foods that were advertised.

TRUDEAU: Mostly nutrient-poor foods, high in sugar, fat and sodium. About 15 percent of the food ads were for breakfast cereals and bread products.

Ms. HARRISON: So we're really looking at a marketing landscape for children that consists of candy, sweets and soft drinks and convenience foods and a little bit of cereal.

TRUDEAU: Since the typical youngster watches about three hours of television a day, Harrison extrapolates that kids age six to 11 could view 10 food ads each hour or 11,000 food ads each year. Other research has shown that the more exposure to a particular ad, the more likely the viewer will want to buy the advertised product.

Ms. HARRISON: Advertisers know very well that the, quote, unquote, "nag factor" is what gets parents to buy these foods that are marketed to kids. Research on nagging shows that kids will be willing to nag upwards of 50 times to get what they want.

TRUDEAU: Harrison also found that the foods advertised were consumed mostly as snacks. In fact, snacking was depicted more frequently than eating at breakfast, lunch and dinner combined. And these food ads implied something else, adds Harrison, who studies media messages about body image.

Ms. HARRISON: We found that the vast majority of characters, in particular child characters, could be coded as just having an average body size.

TRUDEAU: Not too thin, not overweight.

Ms. HARRISON: We think that there is a subtle message there that children can eat things like sweets, soft drinks and candy and fast and convenience foods and not raise their risk of being overweight.

TRUDEAU: Harrison, a developmental psychologist, says that starting around age six, children are beginning to make food choices themselves, which brings us to the second study, also published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a study looking at the proximity of fast-food restaurants to children's schools. Bryn Austin from Harvard's School of Public Health mapped all the schools in Chicago--kindergartens through high schools, public and private--and also mapped where the fast-food restaurants are located in the city.

Ms. BRYN AUSTIN (Harvard School of Public Health): What we found was that the fast-food restaurants were concentrated in areas within a very short walking distance from schools.

TRUDEAU: Almost 80 percent of the schools in Chicago had at least one fast-food restaurant within a half mile.

Ms. AUSTIN: The fast-food restaurants were clustered in school neighborhoods to the point of it being even three to four times more common to find a fast-food restaurant in these neighborhoods than if the restaurants had been evenly located around the city.

TRUDEAU: A study published last year shows that on a typical day almost a third of children and teens eat fast foods.

Ms. AUSTIN: We know on the days when children and teens eat fast food, they consume more calories, more fat, more added sugars and fewer fruits and vegetables.

TRUDEAU: According to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, other research points out that television food ads have decreased over the years. A Federal Trade Commission study that they cited shows that the number of television ads for candy and cereals has dropped over the past 30 years but that TV ads for sweetened drinks and fast foods have increased.

McDonald's Corporation says the location of schools has nothing to do with where they put their restaurants. In a written statement they say McDonald's are located in commercialized areas that are accessible to all consumers. The Harvard Chicago study, however, which looked at fast-food restaurants generally, found that the percentage of schools with at least one fast-food restaurant within easy access of the school yard is the same regardless of the level of commercialization of the neighborhood. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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