Today I wanted to share the fantastic Cereal FACTS report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale. Researchers there recently published this thorough report on children’s cereal and the advertising that accompanies them. Here are some of the findings that I found interesting.
The researchers used a nutrition profiling system to develop a score for each cereal from 1-100, and the average score for children’s cereal was 43. (In comparison, the United Kingdom requires that a cereal have a score of 64 or above if it’s to be marketed to children.) The average children’s cereal has 33% sugar, 5% fiber, and 525 mg sodium.
There’s a very dim silver lining. Since the Rudd Center did this research previously in 2009, 45% of the cereals have reduced sodium, 32% reduced sugar, and 23% increased fiber. The average nutrition score also increased by three points. Maybe I’m too harsh, but I don’t really think that’s good enough. As the report says: “Despite improvements, the cereals advertised to children contain 57% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals.”
I talked about health claims yesterday (cereals are among the worst offenders of slapping on health claims), and some of the research in this report shows why they can be so problematic. A survey found that parents misinterpret claims such as those regarding whole grains, fiber, vitamin D, and calcium. They believed that those products were more nutritious and as a result were more likely to buy them for their kids.
From 2008 to 2011, total media spending for all children’s cereals increased from $197 million to $264 million, and spending on Spanish-language TV went from $26 million to $65 million. According to the report, “General Mills, Kellogg, and Post ran campaigns to promote the nutritional quality of children’s cereals—their least nutritious products—to parents.” Nine of the 10 cereals that appear on the “worst” list also show up on the top-ten list of those that are most frequently advertised.
Last year, kids ages 6 to 11 saw more than 700 TV ads for cereal, nearly half of which were only five brands: Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, Reese’s Puffs, and Lucky Charms. Children see more advertising for cereal than for any other food product.
So why is this type of marketing specifically a problem?
- The most obvious reason: these cereals are highly-processed and nutritiously-poor breakfast options for kids. We need to be providing (and advertising!) much healthier options that have less sugar and sodium and more fiber. Besides the negative health effects of all the added sugar, it’s training children’s taste buds to expect sugary food.
- Children cannot resist advertising as readily as adults can. (And many adults cannot even resist advertising.) They’re much more susceptible to all of the tactics used by advertising companies: fun colors, games, and cartoon characters. Apple Jacks even has an app for smartphones.
- By advertising these cereals so heavily to children, these companies are creating life-long customers—which is precisely their goal.
Coming Friday: part II about what’s being done to control this.