WASHINGTON — Children are exposed to the least healthy breakfast cereals through frequent and aggressive marketing efforts, according to a new study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
The study, which was funded in part by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, examined the nutrient composition and comprehensive marketing efforts of 115 cereal brands and 277 individual cereal varieties. Nineteen of the brands, making up 47 of the varieties, were identified as "child brands" because they are marketed directly to children on television, the Internet, or through licensed characters.
From a marketing exposure perspective, the study found the average preschooler sees 642 cereal advertisements per year on television. The marketing goes beyond television, too, as companies also are making heavy use of the Internet. General Mills, Inc.’s web site Millsberry.com averages 767,000 unique visitors a month and Ralcorp Holdings, Inc.’s Postopia.com averages nearly 265,000 visitors, the study said.
The Kellogg Co. was tagged as the most frequent in-store advertiser, averaging 33.3 promotions per store and 9.5 special displays for its child and family brands over the four-week period examined by the study’s researchers.
The study also delivered a blow to children cereals based on their nutrition profile. According to the study, cereals marketed to children have 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber and 60% more sodium than cereals marketed to adults for adult consumption. In addition, 42% of child-targeted cereals contain artificial food dyes, compared with 26% of family cereals and 5% of adult cereals, according to the study.
The study’s researchers identified General Mills as the worst offender of unhealthy children’s cereals. Using a nutrition score based on the nutrient profiling system developed by Rayner and colleagues at Oxford University and used by the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom to determine what products may be marketed to children on television, the researchers gave General Mills an average nutrition score of 40 for its cereals marketed directly to children. It also had the lowest ranked cereal, Reese’s Puffs, with a nutrition score of 34.
By comparison, Kellogg and Post each received an average nutrition score of 42. A food score of 62 or greater is defined as a "healthy" product.
"This research demonstrates just how far cereal companies have gone to target children in almost everything they do," said Jennifer L. Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. "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."
Jim Marks, senior vice-president and director of the Health Group at the R.W.J.F., said that while cereal can be a healthy and convenient breakfast for children, the study’s findings suggest cereal companies are thus far falling short in making that happen.
"Clearly, there’s a lot of room for improvement," Mr. Marks said.
Responding to the study, Susanne Norwitz, a spokesperson for Kellogg, pointed to the Battle Creek, Mich.-based company’s track record as an industry leader in responsible marketing practices and in helping to advance self-regulatory principles around the world.
"Kellogg has a global standard called the Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria — based on a broad review of scientific reports — that determine ‘how’ and ‘what’ products we market to children under 12," Ms. Norwitz said. "Those products that didn’t meet the criteria have either been reformulated to meet the Nutrient Criteria or are no longer to be marketed to children under 12. From 2006-2009, Kellogg’s advertising to kids under 12 in the U.S. has decreased by approximately 50%. The majority of our marketing is focused on adults.
"Kellogg Co. is committed to providing high-quality, nutritious and great-tasting food to meet consumer health needs. As an example, the Cereal F.A.C.T.S study ranks Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats cereals as No. 1 on its Nutrition Profile Index. Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats has 5 to 6 grams of fiber (20% to 24% of the Recommended Daily Value) and 40 grams to 49 grams of whole grain per serving, making it a nutritious option for consumers.
"Scores of studies around the globe have consistently shown that kids who eat breakfast have more physical and mental energy than those who do not. Breakfast eaters are also more likely to have healthier body weights, greater vitamin and mineral intakes and better memory skills. And pre-sweetened cereals are a good source of vitamins and minerals for children. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, less than 5% of the sugar consumed by U.S. children comes from ready-to-eat cereals."
General Mills noted that from a calorie and nutrient standpoint, "cereal may be the best breakfast choice you could make."
"In fact, kids who eat cereal more frequently, including presweetened cereals, tend to weigh less than kids who eat cereal less frequently — and they are better nourished," General Mills said in response to the study.
For the full report, visit www.CerealFacts.org.