The least healthy breakfast cereals are those most frequently and aggressively marketed directly to children as young as age two, finds a new study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The researchers’ evaluation of cereal marketing, the first such study of its kind, shows pervasive targeting of children across all media platforms and in stores. The detailed findings of this study, which was supported in part by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will be presented in Washington today at Obesity 2009, the 27th annual scientific meeting of The Obesity Society.
Researchers studied the nutrient composition and comprehensive marketing efforts of 115 cereal brands and 277 individual cereal varieties. Nineteen brands (comprised of 47 varieties) were identified as “child brands” because their cereals are marketed directly to children on television, the Internet, or through licensed characters, such as Dora the Explorer.
Cereal companies spend nearly $156 million annually marketing to children just on television. They also market extensively using the Internet, social media, packaging, and in-store promotions.
“This research demonstrates just how far cereal companies have gone to target children in almost everything they do. The total amount of breakfast cereal marketing to children on television and computer screens, and at their eye-level in stores, combined with the appalling nutrient profile of the cereals most frequently marketed, is staggering,” said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
Key marketing exposure findings include:
- The average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year on television alone, almost all for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.
- Companies make heavy use of online marketing in the form of company-sponsored cereal websites and “advergames.” General Mills’ Web sites Millsberry.com, averages 767,000 unique young visitors a month who stay an average of nearly 24 minutes per visit while Postopia.com averages nearly 265,000 young visitors monthly.
- Kellogg—the most frequent in-store advertiser—averaged 33.3 promotions per store and 9.5 special displays for its child and family brands over the four-week period examined.
- General Mills markets to children more than any other cereal company. Six of the 10 least healthy cereals advertised to children are made by General Mills, including the advertised cereal with the worst nutrition score—Reese’s Puffs, which is 41percent sugar.
Key nutrition findings include:
- Cereals marketed directly to children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber, and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults for adult consumption.
- Forty-two percent of child-targeted cereals contain artificial food dyes, compared with 26 percent of family cereals and 5 percent of adult cereals.
- Of the cereals targeted directly to children, only 8 percent meet sugar limits to qualify for inclusion in the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and not one meets the nutrition standards required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.
- All cereals marketed directly to children — including Cocoa Puffs (44% sugar), Cap’n Crunch (44% sugar), Froot Loops (41% sugar), Lucky Charms (41% sugar) and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (32% sugar) — meet industry’s own nutrition standards for “better-for-you” foods.
Through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, most of the largest food marketers have pledged to reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children. This research shows that the CFBAI has not significantly reduced the amount of cereal advertising to children on television.
“Ceding authority to the food companies to regulate themselves is a mistake,” according to Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “The companies want to be seen as public health allies making good faith efforts to change, but their actions indicate otherwise.”
Added Jim Marks, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president and director of the Health Group, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: “While cereal can be a healthy and convenient breakfast for children, this study shows that cereal companies are targeting children with their least healthy products. Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement.”