The Facts about cereal nutrition and food marketing to children.

Published in “Journal Watch Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine”, November 15 2009

Cereal companies worldwide speak to children early through everything from TV advertising and product placement on their favourite foods and clothing to the DVD’s they watch and the games they play. Their campaigns are aggressive, direct and most dangerously they captivate children’s attention, often promising them a sense of fulfilment that cannot be met. The least healthy cereal companies are the worst culprits and their marketing strategies negatively influence children’s dietary choices which can lead to health issues as they grow older.

The Bad News: Children are exposed to a vast amount of marketing for highly-sugared cereals, more than for any other category of packaged food.

What was once a simple marketing landscape— television advertising during cartoons—has morphed into a complex web of persuasive messages even adults may not perceive as marketing. Internet games and marketing through social media such as Facebook are just the beginning and do not capture digital advances that will occur in the future.

The cereals marketed to children fail every reasonable nutrition test, yet according to the food industry are “better-for-you” foods. Eleven of the 13 cereals advertised most to children on television are also marketed heavily on the internet.

The Better News: It need not be this way. Most cereals marketed to children are high in sugar, high in sodium, and low in fiber. Many are highly colorful because of artificial dyes, making healthier cereals, very literally, pale in comparison. Yet, every cereal company does have products that earn good nutrition scores, but these are marketed to adults, not children.

Reinforcing the myth that children will not eat low-sugar cereals, the industry has funded a number of studies that find that highly- sweetened cereal is good for children, especially when compared to having no breakfast at all. Breakfast is good—make no mistake—but a breakfast with less sugar, more fiber, and less sodium will be better for children. A new study delivers good news. Research conducted at Yale* shows that children will eat low-sugar cereals when they are provided.

Children given low-sugar cereal ate the cereal in appropriate amounts, and even when allowed to add table sugar, consumed less sugar overall compared to children given highly-sweetened cereals (who ate twice the recommended serving size). Children liked their cereal equally whether it was highly sugared or not.

This comprehensive report is a first step in quantifying the marketing and nutrition impact of cereals marketed to children. The hope is that cereal companies, whether by choice or mandate, will make rapid and sustained progress toward marketing only healthy cereals, as defined by objective nutrition standards, to children and adolescents.

* Schwartz, M.B. Paper presented at the annual meeting of The Obesity Society, Washington, D.C., October, 2009

FACTS – the Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score – was developed by health researchers at Yale University. The Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University recently compiled then “Nutrition and Marketing of Children’s Cereals” A summary of their findings are as follows:

Key Findings

  • Compared to cereals marketed to adults, those marketed to children have 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber, and 60% more sodium. Together, cereal companies spend more than $156 million per year marketing to children.
  • Of the ten cereals with the worst overall impact (nutrition and marketing scores combined), six are products from General Mills, three are from Kellogg, and one is from Post.
  • The average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year just on television, almost all for cereals with the worst nutrition ratings.The Nielsen Company, 2008 data, “comScore Media Metrix Key Measures Report).
  • Cereal company websites are highly engaging. Young people visiting the sites remain there a long time, an average of 23.7 minutes per visit in the case of Millsberry.com. Cereal products are often turned into toys or playthings on these sites and are associated with fun and in some cases, good health.
  • Cereal companies have made only slight progress in reformulating their products, dropping the average sugar content of cereals marketed to children from three-and-a-half to three teaspoons of sugar per serving.
  • The cereal companies all have products that receive good nutrition scores, but few are marketed to children. Research shows that children will eat the healthier cereals.

Recommendations

  • Cereals marketed to children should meet objective nutrition standards that have children’s health as the aim. We recommend those used by the UK Food Standards Agency, which are based on research by scientists at Oxford University.
  • If the food industry is to be considered a trustworthy public health partner, it must adopt meaningful standards that stop “gaming the system.” Self-regulatory pledges by the cereal companies have thus far been weak and have not shielded  children from a barrage of messages to eat the least healthy products. Self-regulation by industry should not forestall needed government action.
  • Companies have made various pledges to market only healthier products in “children’s media,” but define this media so narrowly that vast numbers of children are exposed to marketing of the least healthy products while they are watching media not specifically targeted to children. Products failing to meet nutrition standards should not be marketed when either the percentage of children in an audience exceeds a defined level or the number of children in an audience reaches a defined level. Standards should be set by an objective body such as the Institute of Medicine.
  • It is critical that efforts to decrease the harm done by marketing unhealthy foods to children do not inadvertently encourage companies to find new promotion strategies that fall outside of the monitoring radar. Companies should be held accountable for the impact of their products on children and for not having made meaningful changes through self- regulation. Government’s role is to define and monitor this harm in ways that ensure that companies make substantial improvements to the quality of products they sell and market for children’s consumption.

Top 10 most nutritional cereals:

  1. Mini-Wheats Kellogg
  2. Organic Wild Puffs Barbara’s Bakery
  3. Honey Sunshine Kashi
  4. Mighty Bites Kashi
  5. Clifford Crunch Cascadian Farm
  6. Hannah Montana Kellogg
  7. Life Quaker
  8. Kix General Mills
  9. Cheerios (except Honey Nut) General Mills
  10. Puffins Barbara’s Bakery

Find out more about Cereal FACTS here.

Published in “Journal Watch Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine“, November 15 2009. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha