The least-healthy breakfast cereals are the ones most aggressively marketed directly to children as young as age two, according to a new study from Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The study found that cereals marketed directly to children have 85 per cent more sugar, 65 per cent less fibre and 60 per cent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.
Of the cereals targeted directly at children, just eight per cent met limits on sugar content to qualify for inclusion in the USDA's Women, Infants and Children program.
Cereals the industry classifies as 'better-for-you' foods:
- Cocoa Puffs: 44 per cent sugar.
- Cap'n Crunch: 44 per cent sugar.
- Froot Loops: 41 per cent sugar.
- Lucky Charms: 41 per cent sugar.
- Cinnamon Toast Crunch: 32 per cent sugar.
None met the nutrition standards required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.
Interestingly, all cereals marketed directly to children met the food industry's own nutrition standards for "better-for-you" foods.
The study was presented Monday in Washington, D.C., at Obesity 2009, the 27th annual meeting of the Obesity Society, a scientific organization dedicated to the study of obesity.
It's the first of its kind to examine how children are targeted across all media platforms and in stores.
"This research demonstrates just how far cereal companies have gone to target children in almost everything they do," said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris in a news release.
"The total amount of breakfast cereal marketing to children on television and computer screens, and at their eye-level in stores, combined with the appalling nutrient profile of the cereals most frequently marketed is staggering," said Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Researchers studied the nutrient composition and marketing efforts of 115 cereal brands and 277 individual cereal varieties.
- The average pre-schooler sees 642 cereal ads per year on television alone, almost all for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.
- Companies make heavy use of online marketing in the form of websites and "advergames." The General Mills website, Millsberry.com, averages 767,000 unique young visitors a month who stay an average of nearly 24 minutes per visit while Post Foods averages nearly 265,000 young visitors monthly on its site, Postopia.com.
- Kellogg — the most frequent in-store advertiser — averaged 33.3 promotions per store and 9.5 special displays for its child and family brands over the four-week period examined.
- General Mills markets to children more than any other cereal company. Six of the 10 least-healthy cereals advertised to children are made by General Mills, including the advertised cereal with the worst nutrition score: Reese's Puffs, which is 41 per cent sugar.
Nineteen brands, which included 47 varieties, were identified as "child brands" because their cereals are marketed directly to children through licensed characters, such as Dora the Explorer.
Cereal companies spend nearly $156 million US annually marketing to children just on television. They also market extensively using the internet, social media, packaging and in-store promotions.
Forty-two percent of child-targeted cereals contain artificial food dyes, compared with 26 per cent of family cereals and five per cent of adult cereals.
The study was highly critical of the food industry's efforts to reduce marketing unhealthy products to children.
"Ceding authority to the food companies to regulate themselves is a mistake," Rudd Center director Kelly Brownell said in a news release.
"The companies want to be seen as public health allies making good-faith efforts to change, but their actions indicate otherwise."
The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was supposed to see a reduction in ads and was sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
However, researchers concluded the amount of marketing has not change significantly since the initiative began.
"Clearly, there's a lot of room for improvement," said Jim Marks, senior vice-president and director of the health group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.