Cereal makers faulted for child marketing practices

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Cereal companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children, but have increased advertising of many of their least nutritious products, according to Cereal FACTS. The study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity originally was launched in 2009, and the three-year update found the children’s cereal landscape has not improved much since then.

In its initial report in 2009, the Rudd Center found cereal products marketed to children contained 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber, and 60% more sodium than products marketed to adults. Due to their poor nutritional profiles, not one child-targeted product could be advertised to children on television in the United Kingdom, and not one qualified to be included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Women, Infants and Children program.

In the new report issued June 22, cereals advertised to children were found to contain 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals.

Some changes for the good

In some cases, the updated study found changes for the better. For instance, overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of 16 child-targeted brands, and the average nutrition score for children’s cereals improved from 40 out of 100 in 2009 to 43 in 2012. Of the 22 different varieties of child-targeted cereals available in both 2008 and 2011, 10 (45%) reduced the sodium, seven (32%) reduced sugar, and five (23%) increased fiber, the study found.

Researchers said General Mills, Inc. improved all of its child-targeted cereals during the three-year period, while other companies introduced new children’s brands with somewhat improved nutrition scores, such as Post’s Pebbles Boulders and Kellogg’s Gluten Free Rice Krispies.

Another positive during the period was a cutback in some forms of advertising directed to children. General Mills and Post discontinued their children’s advergame web sites Millsberry.com and Postopia.com, which researchers said helped cut children’s exposure to cereal company-sponsored web sites by an estimated 100 ads per year, on average.

Not all positive news

Even as a number of positive steps were taken during the three-year period, researchers noted several negative trends, including an uptick in advertising to children of many of the least nutritious cereals.
“Children’s exposure to TV ads increased from 2008 to 2011 for seven child-targeted cereals, including Kellogg Froot Loops (+79%); General Mills Reese’s Puffs (+55%) and Trix (+29%); and Post Pebbles (+25%),” researchers said. “Total exposure to TV advertising for General Mills child and family brands increased by 10% for preschoolers and by 16% for 6- to 11-year-olds.”

The study also found that cereal companies launched new child-targeted web sites and increased banner advertising on third-party children’s web sites for individual brands and existing web sites. Post introduced PebblesPlay.com to replace Postopia.com, and General Mills launched new sites for Honey Nut Cheerios (HoneyDefender.com) and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (CrazySquares.com).

Media spending to promote child-targeted cereals totaled $264 million in 2011, up 34% from 2008, and companies spent more to advertise children’s cereals than they did on adult cereals. By comparison, in 2008, companies spent 41% more on advertising adult cereals, the study found.

“The net effect of these changes is that cereal marketing to children in 2012 looks much the same as it did in 2009,” the researchers said. “Despite improvements in nutritional quality, the cereals advertised to children contain 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals. Companies do offer more nutritious and lower-sugar cereals for children. For example, regular Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats have some of the highest nutrition scores. However, these products are marketed to parents, not directly to children. Companies’ most nutritious products are marketed to adults for their own consumption.”

The researchers concluded that while cereal companies have expressed a commitment to foster public health and be part of the solution to childhood obesity, they cannot do so “by making incremental improvements in the sugar and sodium content of children’s cereals, while continuing to aggressively market their least nutritious cereals to children as young as two years old.”

In the first Cereal FACTS report, researchers recommended that companies replace advertising to children for high-sugar cereals with advertising for the nutritious products in their portfolios. That recommendation remains, the researchers said.

“Why don’t cereal companies market Frosted Mini-Wheats or regular Cheerios directly to children using cartoon characters and fun, cool themes?” they said. “It may increase corporate profits to convince children that they must have Reese’s Puffs or Froot Loops, but why is it acceptable? If General Mills, Kellogg, and Post truly want to help parents raise healthy children, they must: Significantly reduce the hundreds of advertisements for high-sugar cereals that children see every year; and use their substantial resources and creativity to find ways to encourage children to consume the healthful products in their portfolios.

“We urge them to do the right thing for children’s health.”

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