The latest on marketing unhealthy food to children

ricekrispiesPD, 14 years old, pulled a box of Rice Krispies off the shelf and put it into our shopping cart. I glimpsed the cartoon characters and was just thinking about objecting, when he said, “You would think these would have a lot of sugar” – because of the cartoon characters, which appeal to children. He pointed out that they only have 4 grams of sugar per serving, compared to, say, Froot Loops, with the Toucan character and 12 grams of sugar. I was surprised.

He’s right of course, that the highest-sugar cereals are specifically marketed to children. Here are two of the latest studies by Yale’s Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity on marketing unhealthy foods to kids. (Thanks to Melinda Hemmelgarn, the Food Sleuth, for bringing these to my attention.)

In one study, researchers find that cereal companies – the third biggest food marketer to children – use sophisticated online marketing techniques to target children.

“Our research demonstrates the effectiveness of digital media as a vehicle to market unhealthy foods like sugary cereals to children,” said the study’s lead author, Andrew Cheyne of the Berkeley Media Studies. “We found that sugary cereal websites with the most interactive features engaged children for longer periods of time and inspired children to return to the sites more often than sites with little interactive content.”

The Froot Loops game page for kids.

The Froot Loops game page for kids.

(By the way, here is the Environmental working Group’s report on sugar in children’s cereal, which finds that popular brands have more sugar than Twinkies and Chips Ahoy.)
Another study found that despite an industry pledge to reduce unhealthy food and beverage advertising on TV programs for children, and despite a reduction in food ads seen by kids since the effort began in 2004, there is still a long way to go.

Researchers found that more than half of the food and beverage advertisements viewed by children are not subject to the industry’s guidelines, because of the way the industry defines a child-centric program – leaving out, for example, a ‘Shrek the Halls’ holiday special.  The authors concluded that the guidelines should be expanded to cover more shows watched by many children.

Meanwhile, restaurant chains are also doing a fairly poor job, in terms of children’s nutrition, under industry self-regulation.

Nearly all of the children’s meals at America’s top chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group found that 91 percent of about 3,500 kid’s meal combinations do not meet the nutritional standards of the industry lobbying group’s Kids LiveWell program. (97% don’t meet CSPI’s standards.)

But there’s a good news story here:  All of Subway restaurant’s  kids’ meal combinations met CSPI’s stricter nutrition criteria. CSPI said Subway is the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugary drinks as an option with its kids’ meals.

Another positive story comes from Michelle Simon at Appetite for Profit: MOM’s Organic Market, a small retail chain based in the Baltimore area, announced it would stop carrying products featuring children’s cartoon characters on the label.

Company CEO Scott Nash blogged last August about how his young daughter begged for a cereal she never tasted because of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” on the box, putting the store’s policy into motion.

So even though the food at this store is often healthy and organic, and even though the characters are from educational or positive shows, this retailer realized that the characters unfairly manipulate children.


  1. Love that you’ve got a 14-year-old commenting on comparative sugar levels in cereal!

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