Companies fall short in advertising healthy foods to children

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Despite a 2-year-old pledge by more than a dozen major food companies to advertise healthier foods to children, about two-thirds of those companies’ ads remain for products of low nutritional quality, according to a study released Monday.

The report, released a day before the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies are set to suggest nutritional standards for foods marketed to kids, concluded that the industry’s effort at self-regulation has failed. Ads for sugary cereals, fast food and sweet snacks made up more than 70% of the total studied.

“We cannot win the battle against childhood obesity as long as we continue to allow industry to bombard children with ads for foods that they really shouldn’t eat very often,” said Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona, lead researcher of the report, which was commissioned by the advocacy organization Children Now.

“Other countries have already put a stop to this type of commercial exploitation, and it’s time for the U.S. to act more responsibly to protect the health of the nation’s children,” Kunkel said.

Industry officials, however, said that their efforts are working and that the landscape for children’s advertising is changing. They said the two years since the initiative began is not enough time to measure change.

In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative as a self-regulation plan. Companies taking part agree to devote at least half of their advertising toward children to promote “healthier or better-for-you” foods or to include messages encouraging good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

Sixteen companies now take part, including Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Coca-Cola Co., McDonald’s Corp., ConAgra Foods Inc., General Mills, Burger King Corp., and PepsiCo.

Kunkel’s study, funded by the California Endowment, a private health foundation, looked at 139 children’s broadcast and cable programs in February, March and April. The researchers examined 534 food and beverage ads that ran during, before or directly following the programs, 381 of them from companies taking part in the initiative.

Products were categorized using a Department of Health and Human Services plan for “go” foods, which can be eaten almost any time; “slow” foods, which have moderate nutritional value and could be consumed several times a week; and “whoa” foods, which should be eaten only occasionally.

The report found that 68.5% of ads by companies taking part in the initiative were for foods in the “whoa” category; 31% were for products in the “slow” category; and that less than 1% of the ads were for foods in the “go” category.

By comparison, in 2005, 84% of the foods marketed to children were in the “whoa” category, the report said.

Susan Davison, a Kraft spokeswoman, said her company believes the initiative is working. Because of it, she said, “most of the major children’s food marketers now use science-based nutrition standards to determine what products are advertised to children.”

As one of the positive changes, she added, “Kraft Foods has stopped advertising many well-known, beloved products to kids such as Oreo and Chips Ahoy! cookies.”

Elaine Kolish, director of the initiative, said that dozens of products have been reformulated to improve their nutritional profile, such as reduction in the sugar content of cereals.

And, she said, in a survey of ads last year, 83% were for products that were “at least a good source of a nutrient” such as calcium or Vitamin E, or contained a half-serving of items federal government authorities encourage children to eat.