Food marketing aimed at kids influences poor nutritional choices: IOM study

MUMBAI: Food and beverage marketing targeted at children ages 12 and under leads them to ask for and consume high-calorie, low-nutrient products, says a new report from the US Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The report offers the most comprehensive review to date of the scientific evidence on the influence of food marketing on diets of children and youth.

Popular cartoon characters such as SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo and the princesses in Disney features should be used to endorse healthy foods only, the Institute of Medicine said. While SpongeBob SquarePants has been used to advertise spinach, he has also been used to market ice cream, candy and brownies.

The Institute, in its report said that media and entertainment industries should incorporate storylines that promote healthful eating into programs, films, and games. The government should consider the use of awards and tax incentives that encourage companies to develop and promote healthier products for young people.



The study said that since dietary preferences and eating patterns form early in life and set the stage for an individual's long-term health prospects, significant changes are needed to reshape children's awareness of healthy dietary choices.

Companies must offer kids more foods and beverages that are lower in calories, fat, salt and sugar and higher in nutrients.

Noting that many factors shape children's dietary habits and that leadership from both the public and the private sectors will be needed to redirect the nation's focus toward healthier products, the committee also called on the government to enhance nutritional standards, incentives, and public policies to promote the marketing of healthier foods and beverages.

The report called on schools, parents, and the media to develop and enforce marketing standards that support healthy diets. And if voluntary efforts by the industry fails to successfully shift the emphasis of television advertising during children's programming away from high-calorie, low-nutrient products to healthier fare, legislation should be enacted to mandate this change on both broadcast and cable television, the study said.

The institute also recommended the creation of a rating system and food labeling to convey nutritional value. Companies spent an estimated $10 billion to market foods, beverages, and meals to US children and youth in 2004, and four of the top 10 items that children ages 8 to 12 say they can buy without parental permission are either foods or beverages.

"Current food and beverage marketing practices put kids' long-term health at risk. If America's children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset of diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods, and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to kids. And this is an 'all hands on deck' issue. Parents have a central role in the turnaround required, but so do the food, beverage, and restaurant industries," said Institute of Medicine committee chair and senior scholar J. Michael McGinnis.

McGinnis also said that there was a sense of urgency because of the childhood obesity epidemic. About 31 per cent of US kids are overweight or at risk of becoming so, increasing their risk of developing a host of health problems.

The report also added that the growth in new food products directed to kids was been huge, from 52 introduced in 1994 to nearly 500 introduced last year.

Findings about marketing's influence

The committee assessed hundreds of relevant studies and reviewed evidence from more than 120 of the best designed to determine what effects marketing may have on children's diets and health. Most of these studies focused only on television advertising, a shortcoming that should be addressed in future research, given that marketing strategies are rapidly evolving and now employ many tactics beyond television advertising, including Internet marketing, mobile phone ads, and product placements in video games and other media.

For the most part, the committee did not have access to the substantial body of proprietary market research data held by marketing firms and food, beverage, and restaurant companies.

The report added that available studies were too limited to determine whether television advertising is a direct cause of obesity among children. However, the statistical association between ad viewing and obesity is strong. Even a small influence would amount to a substantial impact when spread across the entire population, the report notes.

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