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:
Key nutrition findings include:
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.”