Public health organizations may have lost the battle to have the federal government impose stricter food marketing guidelines, but they aren't giving up on their overarching mission. A new study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity concluded that cereal companies haven't gone far enough to improve the nutritional quality of cereals marketed to kids.
Between 2008 and 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereal increased by 34 percent to $264 million, the Rudd analysis of Nielsen data found. Children's exposure to cereal ads on TV has decreased, but only slightly. Kids ages 2-11 saw 1,030 cereal ads in 2011, only slightly fewer than the 1,077 in 2008, but their exposure to seven of the least nutritious cereals went up, including Kellogg's Froot Loops (79 percent), General Mills' Reese's Puffs (55 percent) and Post's Pebbles (25 percent).
Rudd hopes the study alarms the public. "We hope parents will start to realize how unhealthy these products are and how much is being marketed to kids," said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives for the Rudd Center. "I don't think the industry will do more unless they're forced to by consumers or the government, so any kind of pressure we can bring we're hoping will make them do more."
Pressure by the public and the threat of government regulation has already resulted in many changes—big ones if you ask cereal companies about the cost of changing formulations for their products. Since Rudd's first study, the cereal companies, as part of their commitment to the self-regulatory guidelines of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, have improved the nutritional quality of child-targeted cereals for 13 of 14 brands advertised to kids with less sodium, less sugar and more fiber. General Mills improved the nutritional quality of all its child-targeted cereals.
"Before CFBAI was founded, some cereals had 15 or 16 grams of sugar; now most have no more than 10 grams per serving, and none have more than 12 grams," noted Elaine Kolish, the director of CFBAI, which adopted stricter guidelines that go into effect at the end of 2013.
That improvement still falls short for Harris. "When we look at the data, it's only a small improvement in nutrition, and cereals are still marketed to children [more] than any other packaged-goods category. The companies have healthy products in their portfolios kids will eat, like Cheerios, but those aren't marketed to kids, only to adults. The ones that are marketed to children are still the worst in their portfolio."
But Kolish points out that the cereals, especially the five brands that represent about half the ads kids see, are more nutritious and lower in calories (130) when compared to other likely breakfast options, such as muffins, donuts, pancakes and waffles. "These cereals have fewer calories, less sugar, less fat and less sodium," Kolish said.
The Cereal Facts Study examined the nutrition quality and advertising of more than 100 brands and 300 varieties marketed to children, families and adults.