TV marketing that pushes foods high in salt, sugar and fat to children can put their long-term health at risk, according to past research. So has Big Food changed its ways?
It's not hard to connect the dots between what kids see on TV and what they eat. Advertising works.
And researchers have documented that marketing practices that push items like sugary cereals, salted snacks and fast food put children's long-term health at risk by promoting unhealthy eating habits.
But shifting marketing away from products high in salt, sugar and fat — as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies urged back in 2006 — has proven to be a tough challenge.
The food industry has been policing itself on this front. Through a collaborative known as the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was launched at the end of 2006, companies pledged to cut back on marketing unhealthy foods to children under 12.
Lots of the biggest names in food are part of this initiative: from Kraft Foods and Kellogg to McDonald's USA and The Coca-Cola Company. And from their perspective, there's been lots of progress.
"The foods being advertised to kids are healthier than ever," Elaine Kolish, the director of the industry's initiative, wrote to us in an email. And as research published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concludes, the companies have indeed met their targets.
For instance, Kellogg pledged that all child-targeted food ads would feature foods that contain no more than 200 calories, 2 grams of saturated fat and 12 grams of added sugar per serving. According to the new study, this promise has been kept. "Examination of compliance with industry self-regulation revealed complete conformity with company pledges," the study concludes.
But it's too soon to give the industry a congratulatory high-five, according to Dale Kunkel, a professor emeritus of communications at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the study.
He tells us that the companies' efforts "have barely moved the needle in terms of shifting food advertising to children to genuinely healthy products."
Kunkel and his co-authors used a food-grading system known as "Go" (good to eat every day), "Slow" (good to eat a few times a week) and "Whoa" (eat only on occasion) to evaluate the kinds of foods advertised to kids.
Their analysis shows that in 2013, 75 percent of food ads targeted toward children by companies participating in the initiative "promoted products in the poorest nutritional category."
Simply put, most foods marketed on TV to kids are "Whoa" foods. Companies may be reducing the amount of sugar or sodium in their products, or shaving down portion sizes, but they're still not promoting nutrient-dense "Go" foods.
The CFBAI's Elaine Kolish takes issue with this evaluation. She says the Go/Slow/Whoa system is flawed, and argues that contrary to what the study finds, "progress under the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative has been substantial."
She points to cereals, one of the foods most frequently advertised to kids.
"Before our program started, some cereals had as much as 15 grams of sugar per serving. To be advertised to children, they now can have no more than 10 grams of sugar, and many have even less. At the same time, their whole grain content has gone up," Kolish wrote in a statement to The Salt.
So, do these changes give the industry credibility in arguing that it has met its goal to only advertise "better-for-you foods" to children, as the initiative pledged to do in its mission statement?
In Kunkel's opinion, the answer is no: "There's a disconnect between what they say they're doing and what the study finds," he tells The Salt.
The companies participating in CFBAI "have very self-interested definitions of what constitutes a healthy food," he argues.
In other words, if you can call a food better-for-you because it contains a bit less sugar, this may be letting the industry off the hook a little too easily. At a time when Americans are being told to limit sugar to fewer than 10 percent of daily calories, and fill half of our plates — at every meal — with fruits and vegetables, it's clear that the ideal pattern of eating doesn't line up with what's being advertised on TV.