In 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was formed by some of the largest food companies as a promise to change their ways through self-regulation. Among other things, they pledged to raise the nutritional standards for children’s cereals as well as the standards for advertising targeted to children. What progress, if any, have they made?
A new report published by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Cereal FACTS 2012, answers that question. It found that many of the cereals marketed to kids today are a smidge healthier than they were in 2008, but these are the same cereals that remain among the least nutritious in the companies’ portfolios and are marketed to children more heavily than ever before. They include Pebbles (up to 37% sugar content), Reese’s Puffs (34%), Cinnamon Toast Crunch (30-32%), Lucky Charms (37%), Froot Loops (up to 48%), Cocoa Puffs (up to 37%), Cookie Crisp (33-35%) and Frosted Flakes (up to 37%).
From 2008 to 2011, total media spending on cereals for children increased by 34% to $264 million. The cereals advertised contain 57% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium than adult-targeted cereals. Children’s cereals contain one spoonful of sugar for every three spoonfuls of cereal. After a single serving of one of these cereals in the morning, children will have had as much sugar as they should for the entire day. Sweetness sells, and more so for children’s palates (it is, after all, the first category of taste that people are biologically engineered to recognize), and food companies aren’t about to abandon a formula that works just because one in three American children are overweight or obese, causing a range of health problems.
Elaine Kolish, the director of CFBAI, argues that the cereals “are more nutritious and lower in calories when compared to other likely breakfast options, such as muffins, donuts, pancakes and waffles,” as reported in AdWeek. That’s supposed to be a selling point. At least these cereals are better for children than an over-sized bakery muffin, a chocolate-glazed donut or syrup-saturated pancakes and waffles. The goal for these companies, of course, is to make sales, not to nourish our children. For best nourishment, you can only rely on food made with fresh, good-quality ingredients, including these whole-grain pancakes I often make for my preschooler.
As Katy Bachman of AdWeek writes, “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.”
The hope, with the publication of the Cereal FACTS 2012 report, is to move the public to action, in the same way it was moved to do so on the pink slime controversy, for example. “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.” As study co-author and director of the Rudd Center Kelly Brownell put it, “it is obvious that industry regulating itself is a failure.”
Childhood obesity, according to the American Heart Association, ranks as the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States. Parents should be outraged by the quality of the food, including cereals, that the industry markets directly to our children and that contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Photo Credit: AJ LEON