Most Foods and Beverages Advertised to Children Fall Short of Federal Standards for a Healthy Diet, New Study Shows

    • May 8, 2015

Princeton, N.J.―Major food and beverage companies are meeting their own pledges to advertise healthier products to children on TV, but three out of four of those products do not meet government guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet for children, according to a study published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study found that, in 2013, 25 percent of companies’ TV ads to children promoted products the government would count as moderately healthy―and no ads promoted products in the healthiest food category.

The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) includes 17 major food and beverage companies that have pledged to advertise healthier products to children. This is the first study to examine TV ads before and after the launch of CFBAI to determine whether CFBAI companies were meeting their pledges, and whether those pledges were helping to shift TV food ads to a healthier mix of products. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) funded the study through its national program Healthy Eating Research.

Researchers found that CFBAI companies did follow their pledges. They examined 247 ads aired during children’s programming by CFBAI members in the spring of 2013, and found that all of the featured products met the nutrition criteria each company had in place at the time. The researchers then compared the products with nutrition guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In 2007 (before the launch of CFBAI), 76.4 percent of CFBAI companies’ ads were for foods or beverages that qualified as Whoa products under the HHS standards, meaning they were high in added sugar, fat, or calories. In 2013, the frequency of ads for Whoa products remained virtually unchanged, at 75.3 percent. HHS recommends eating Whoa products, such as french fries, chicken nuggets, and sweetened breakfast cereal, “only once in a while or on special occasions.”

“CFBAI members followed their pledges in 2013, but those efforts have barely moved the needle in terms of shifting food advertising to children to genuinely healthy products,” said Dale Kunkel, professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and lead study author. “The CFBAI companies’ standards for what foods are considered healthy are not very high, and almost a third of the ads we measured came from companies that are not CFBAI members, limiting the impact of the program.”

To examine the industry’s efforts to self-regulate, Kunkel and his team examined ads for foods and beverages aired during children’s programming on ABC, Cartoon Network, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, and Nickelodeon. They looked at ads aired between February 1 and April 15, 2007, before CFBAI started, and during the same period in 2013, four years after CFBAI companies’ pledges were fully in effect. They then compared the foods and beverages in ads from CFBAI companies, and those from non-participating companies, with the HHS standards.

Some key findings include:

  • CFBAI member companies aired 70 percent of foods ads in 2013; non-participating companies aired 30 percent of ads.
  • The majority of all foods ads, from CFBAI members and non-members combined, were for Whoa products in 2007 (79.4% of ads) and in 2013 (80.5% of ads).
  • Non-member companies were significantly more likely to air ads for Whoa foods in 2013 than were CFBAI members (92.5% of non-members’ ads, compared with 75.3% of members’ ads).
  • CFBAI members also pledged to use characters from TV shows or movies solely to promote healthier foods, yet 61 percent of ads with these characters promote Whoa products.

On December 31, 2013, after the data for this study were collected, CFBAI rolled out uniform nutrition criteria, so that each member company is now following the same standards. The uniform standards represent an effort by CFBAI to strengthen the criteria for defining a healthy product.

For the purposes of this study, children’s programming was defined as “any show with a V-chip rating of TV-Y (all children) or TV-Y7 (children aged at least 7 years), or any show with a Federal Communications Commission rating of E/I (educational/informational) that targets children aged under 12 years.”

The current 17 members of CFBAI are:

  • Burger King Corp.
  • Campbell Soup Company
  • ConAgra Foods, Inc.
  • Ferrero U.S.A, Inc. (joined after this study was conducted, so was not included)
  • General Mills, Inc.
  • Kellogg Company
  • Kraft Foods Group, Inc.
  • Mars, Incorporated
  • McDonald's USA, LLC
  • Mondelēz Global, LLC
  • Nestlé USA
  • PepsiCo, Inc.
  • Post Foods, LLC
  • The Coca-Cola Company
  • The Dannon Company
  • The Hershey Company
  • Unilever United States



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Media Contacts

Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937