New Study: Parents Support Restrictions on The Marketing of Food to Kids

I’m catching up on news items from last week and wanted to share an important new study from The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding how parents view food industry marketing practices targeted toward their children, a study which, according to the Rudd Center, is the first of its kind.

Surveying 2,454 parents with children aged 2 to 17, the Rudd Center found that:

Parents were as concerned about junk food marketing to children as they were about alcohol and tobacco use in the media. The surveyed parents were highly aware of the “pester power” of food marketing and its effects on their children’s food preferences.

Photo credit: Yale Rudd Center

The report also found relatively high parental support for a variety of policies to promote healthier eating among children, including some restrictions on the advertising of food to kids.  Specifically, the report found that:

The majority of parents surveyed . . . endorsed policies to restrict food marketing to children, with highest support for prohibiting advertising on school buses (69%) and requiring companies to fund advertising for healthy and unhealthy foods equally (68%). Parents also approved of regulations to limit specific types of unhealthy food marketing to children under 12, including advertising/sponsorships in schools (65%), mobile marketing (65%), TV commercials (63%), viral marketing (62%), and internet advertising (61%).

There is much more to be learned from this groundbreaking study, including the environmental factors parents cite most often as obstacles to healthy eating and analyses of the responses along ethnic and political lines.  The entire report is found here.

Given that food industry self-regulation in this area has been almost comically weak, and given how hard (and successfully) the industry lobbied last year against purely voluntary federal advertising guidelines, it’s clear that only political pressure from consumers and parents will bring about real reforms.  In quantifying parents’ views about these issues for the first time, the Rudd Center brings us a step closer to making those reforms a reality.

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Manufacturers Continue to Target Children With Sugary Cereals Ads

Despite their participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry group pledged to reduce the marketing of unhealthy products to children, the food industry continues to aggressively promote its least nutritious cereals to children.

That’s the troubling, but perhaps not surprising, conclusion of a new study, the findings of which were released in summarized form today by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.  (The detailed findings will be presented this Sunday during the Biennial Conference of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

Entitled “the Cereal FACTS report,” the study found that although:

companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children . . .they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products. . . .

From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent.

Following up on its 2009 cereal study, the Rudd Center once again examined the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal, as well as the scope of industry advertising on television, the Internet, and social media sites.  Some key findings:

The good news is that the overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children, with increases in fiber and decreases in sugar and sodium.  And children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.

The bad news is that children viewed more TV ads than ever for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese’s Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles.  Furthermore, some companies stepped up their Internet promotion of these brands, including the launch of a new Pebbles website from Post and a doubling in banner advertising by Kellogg on child-directed websites like  Kellogg also introduced the “first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.”

The study also found that companies are increasing their targeting of Hispanic children by doubling Spanish-language TV ads.  Hispanic children’s exposure to these ads tripled.

And of course, it’s no surprise that when companies market their lower-sugar cereals like regular Cheerios, the ads are directed to parents, but when marketing the sugary stuff, kids are the target audience.  On that point, Marlene Schwartz, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Rudd Center, had this to say:

While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults. They have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50 percent more sodium.  The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren’t loaded with sugar and salt. Why can’t they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?

Right on.

Overall the study provides yet more proof that industry “self-regulation” in this area has yet to be truly meaningful, and we already know that efforts to federally regulate the food industry are also likely to fail, given Big Food’s well-documented grip on our elected officials.

But the recent announcement by Disney that it’s ditching junk food advertising for kids does give me a bit of hope.  There’s clearly a market of parents out there looking for companies to support them in their efforts to feed their children well — and a growing resentment among these consumers toward companies that prey on their children with aggressive junk food marketing.

Will free market forces ever tip in favor of these consumers, forcing companies to do the right thing if only to preserve profits?

Or do you think I’ve taken up residence in Disney’s Fantasyland?

For more information on the study, visit  You can also follow the conversation about the study on Twitter at @YaleRuddCenter with the hashtag #cerealfacts.

And, by the way, later this summer I hope to share with you some more information on the Rudd Center and the many resources it offers parents in the areas of school food reform, wellness policies and more.  Stay tuned.

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McDonald’s Improves Happy Meals: Meaningful Change or Corporate Whitewashing?

Well, the biggest story in the “kid and food” world yesterday was an announcement by McDonald’s USA of its plan to improve the Happy Meal.

Rolling out in September, Happy Meals around the country will start to contain a smaller serving of fries (1.1 ounces down from 2.4 ounces) and will now automatically contain a bag of apple slices (without a caramel dipping sauce.)  Two bags of apples and no fries will be available upon request.  In addition, the meals will also offer a new fat-free chocolate milk along with 1% plain milk.  The price of the meals is not changing and they will still contain a free toy.

ronald mcdonald clown
"Whee! Look at all the great PR I'm getting!"

Beyond those basic facts, there has been some confusion in the media about the announcement.  One question is whether milk or soda will be the default beverage served.

The New York Times‘s Prescriptions blog initially reported that the “company will offer a choice of milk with 1 percent fat or fat-free chocolate milk rather than soda, although parents can still ask for soda,” while CNN said that “all beverages, including milk, fruit juice, water and soda, continue to be options for the Happy Meal,” and ABC News reported that parents “must request” soda.  But Nancy Huehnergarth, Executive Director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, told me last night that a Reuters reporter directly asked this question of the company and was told that soda will remain the default.  Reuters has not yet published this fact, but I noticed this morning that the Times Prescriptions post now reads (without indicating that the text has been changed – not cool, NYT!) that “the default will be a cup for soda or water.”  (And, by the way, when it comes to those apple slices, at least one media report indicated that instead of a bag of apples, kids might eventually get a bag of carrot sticks, pineapple spears or raisins.)

Bottom line, according to the company these changes will result in “an estimated 20 percent reduction in calories of the most popular Happy Meals, also reducing fat in the meal.”  The company also makes a commitment to:

raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives. The company will promote nutrition messages in 100 percent of its national kids’ communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging. McDonald’s will also provide funding for grass roots community nutrition awareness programs.

Kids’ meals aren’t the only foods getting a makeover.   McDonald’s promises to reduce added sugars, saturated fat and calories in all of its menu items, but don’t look for those changes any time soon; the company gives itself until 2020 to rejigger its recipes.  (Really? Nine years?)  In the interim, it also promises to reduce sodium “an average of 15 percent overall across its national menu of food choices” by 2015 and it says it will make nutrition information more accessible.

There are a few other items in the McDonald’s press release worth noting.  McDonald’s uses the occasion to tout its participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (but you already know how I feel about that group – see “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising“);  it promises to set up a “Kids’ Food and Nutrition Advisory Board; ” it says the company will submit to third party verification of its efforts, the results of which will be reported publicly; and, my personal favorite, executives from the company will go on a “listening tour” next month to learn more from parents and nutrition experts on the role McDonald’s can play in improving child nutrition. (Please, oh, please can I get on that tour route?  ‘Cause I’ve got an earful to share.)

So what’s the upshot here?  Corporate white-washing or meaningful change?

In a time of alarming childhood obesity, fast food generally — and children’s meals specifically — face mounting pressure from local governments and consumer groups.  San Francisco and Santa Clara County have succeeded in banning toys in fast food meals which don’t meet certain nutritional requirements (which, as I understand it, the improved Happy Meals still do not) and a similar measure has been introduced in the New York City Council.  (Meanwhile, Jack in the Box voluntarily dropped its toys last month.)  Local governments have sought to pass public health measures directed at restaurants, such as bans on trans fats, or laws prohibiting the construction of new fast food restaurants in poverty-stricken areas.  (But the restaurant industry has had success fighting against those measures in state legislatures.)  And last month, as reported here on TLT, the National Restaurant Association announced a wide-ranging initiative to improve children’s menus at 15,000 participating chain restaurants, including Au Bon Pain, Burger King, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Denny’s and many more.  (The conspicuous absence of McDonald’s from the list was noted at the time – we now know the company already had its new Happy Meal plan in the works.)

So, clearly, McDonald’s saw the handwriting on the wall and knew that the tide of public opinion was turning against a uniformly unhealthy Happy Meal.  To have continued to sell it without improvements would have been remarkably tone deaf for a company that prides itself on reading, and meeting, consumer desire.

But in the end, how should we feel about it?

I can already guess that many commentators (and some of my fellow bloggers) will blast McDonald’s for its rank hypocrisy here.  A bag of apples thrown into a box containing fries, nuggets and a soda doesn’t magically transform junk food into healthful food.   And there is, without question, a lot of bogus, cynically PR-seeking hooey in the McDonald’s announcement, like the “Kids’ Food and Nutrition Advisory Board”  (yeah, I’m sure that group will have a lot of influence on its multi-billion dollar master), and the aforementioned “listening tour.”  I’m also marveling at the truly Orwellian scenario of putting “nutrition messages” on, of all things, Happy Meal packaging.  (Gee, that won’t confuse kids.)  And, of course, McDonald’s is steadfastly refusing to ditch the Happy Meal toy, a source of much concern among some children’s health advocates.

So sure, a lot of this feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  As Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, said in a CNN story yesterday:

. . .  we should be careful in heaping praise on corporations for simply reducing the scope of the problem they continue to create. . . .  Ultimately corporate responsibility is not about securing public relations for cleaning up your own mess, but for not creating the problem in the first place. In this case, that means stopping the marketing of junk food to kids.


And there’s another issue to consider.  As Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, has already pointed out, this all could backfire terribly.  Emboldened by news of a “healthy Happy Meal,” less food-savvy parents might feel more inclined than ever to let their kids eat at McDonald’s.  (And perhaps that’s exactly what the chain is counting on.)

But with all that said . . . .

As I reported just yesterday (in a timely coincidence), a new Journal of the American Dietetic Association study shows that more and more of children’s daily calories are eaten in the form of fast food.  We may rail against that fact, we may lament the demise of home cooking, we may have grand plans for changing the status quo.  But until that day comes, it’s a sad truth that McDonald’s is a regular staple in the diet of many American children.  (To put it in perspective, McDonald’s estimates that the aforementioned changes will eliminate 49 billion calories in American kids’ diets annually.  If I did my math correctly, that comes to 14,000 pounds of lost body fat each year.)

So would I rather a child be given a smaller bag of fries versus a bigger one?  Do I want fruit included in a kids’ meal or not?   It would be counter-productive, I think, to take issue with those positive changes just because we (quite rightly) question the purity of the motives behind them.   Moreover, let’s not overlook the fact that consumer and legislative pressure pushed a behemoth like McDonald’s in the right direction.  Not far enough, of course, but that in itself is noteworthy.  The key, then, is to keep right on pushing.

OK, I know you’ve got your own views to share about all this.  Let me hear what you have to say.

[Ed. Note:  I’m be curious to hear the views of respected, longstanding critics of the fast food industry like Marion Nestle (Food Politics), Michele Simon (Appetite for Profit) and others.  As more posts are published about this topic in the coming days, I’ll share those links here.]

[Update:  Here’s what Marion Nestle and Fooducate have to say.  More to come.]



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Fox Guards Henhouse Part 2: Food Marketers Using Online Media to Bypass Parents, Reach More Kids

A few months ago I told you about a voluntary scheme created by the Council for Better Business Bureaus under which major food manufacturers promise to either devote 100% of their child-directed advertising to “better-for-you” foods, or to not engage in such advertising at all.  (“Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising“)   This “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative” (CFBAI) sounds great on paper, but then I showed you some of the “better-for-you” foods that pass muster under the program:  everything from Kool-Aid Singles to Lunchables Chicken Dunks to Post Cupcake Pebbles cereal. (Here’s the entire “Better-for-You Product List” to get you really outraged.)

lunchablechickendunks KoolAidsinglescupcakepebblesjpg

Well, according to a front page story in today’s New York Times, food marketers are now relying more and more on the use of interactive computer games, online quizzes and surveys, cellphone apps and social media to reach children, eager to influence kids’ impact on an estimated $100 billion in food and beverage purchases — while bypassing most parental oversight.

The Times story notes that the products most often promoted in these new media are usually the very worst of the “Better for You” list. Moreover, reaching kids through online media is even more insidious than doing so via television or print advertising, because kids often fail to understand that these games and apps are advertisements, and they often become unwitting marketers for the food companies when they promote the games and products to their own peers via Facebook.

Elaine Kolish, the director of the CBFAI, claims in the Times story that the voluntary initiative is still effective in the online world, noting that some participating companies have recently changed the focus of websites for products like Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts and Pepsi’s Cap’n Crunch “to focus on adults.”  Curious, I visited the Pop-Tarts site and sure enough, it does claim to be directed at “moms” (right down to its URL —  But is there anything about  this memory matching game on the site, for example, that’s mom-specific?  Meanwhile, Kellogg’s continues to overtly market its Apple Jacks cereal (hardly better than Pop-Tarts, nutritionally) directly to kids, with this game-filled site.

As Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, wryly noted in the article:

Perfect compliance with an awful standard takes you down a bad road.

In my winning essay for the Slate anti-childhood obesity Hive, I argued that we are never going to get anywhere if we continue to let the fox guard the henhouse.  Federal legislation is sorely needed to rein in food marketers seeking to reach children, and I was encouraged to read in the Times story that the FTC will be issuing a report this summer on this very issue.

Maybe that report, coming from an Obama administration FTC, will move us in the right direction. I’ll keep you posted here.


Big Shocker: Yale Study Shows Kids Will Actually Eat Low-Sugar Cereal

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has released the results of a study showing that kids will actually eat low-sugar cereal and that “serving high-sugar cereals may increase children’s total sugar consumption and reduce the overall nutritional quality of breakfast.”   Gee, really?

In the study, summer campers between 5 and 12 were given the choice of either three high-sugar cereals or three low-sugar cereals, along with milk, fruit, juice and packets of sugar.  The results:

Children reported “liking” or “loving” the cereal they chose whether it was a high-sugar or low-sugar variety. The children who were offered the high-sugar cereals consumed twice the amount of refined sugar, even though the other children added sugar to their low-sugar cereals. In both cases, children consumed similar amounts of milk and total calories; however, children who were served low-sugar cereals consumed a greater proportion of those calories from fresh fruit, whereas the added sugar found in high-sugar cereals comprised the majority of calories in the high-sugar cereal meal.

The line from the report about the study that really got my attention was this:

The dilemma, say the authors, is that because of the prevalent marketing of high-sugar cereals to children, many parents feel they are faced with a choice between purchasing high-sugar cereals or having their children eat no breakfast at all.

Huh?  How about trying out this neat, new thing we have called “Parental Authority” and buying the cereal you feel is best for your kids?

[Hat tip:  Yale Alumni Magazine blog]