For young Americans, the "food landscape" in television advertising is packed with junk food, according to a new study.
The study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the first to explore the nutritional composition of foods advertised to children using Nutrition Facts labeling.
Nutrient-poor high-sugar foods – candy, sweets and soft drinks – dominate (nearly 44 percent) the foods advertised during the TV programs children ages 6 to 11 watch most, the analysis found. Convenience/fast foods made up 34.2 percent of the advertisements during the programs.
Harrison and Marske also evaluated the nutritional content of food advertised to adults during the most popular TV shows. They found that those ads were dominated (57.1 percent) by convenience/fast foods, fat and sodium.
"An individual eating a 2,000-calorie diet composed of the general-audience foods would consume considerably more than the RDVs of fat, saturated fat and sodium, while ingesting only a fraction of the RDVs of fiber, vitamin C, calcium and iron."
Harrison said kids consumption of TV ads that tout poor food choices is especially troubling because childhood obesity is on the rise, TV advertising influences childrens food purchases and purchase requests, and kids see so many TV food ads a day.
Harrison and Marske tallied an average of 10.65 food advertisements per hour in their sample. Other research has found that preteens watch on average nearly three hours of television a day, meaning that "the typical child aged 6-11 years would be exposed to approximately 11,000 food advertisements each year."
The researchers taped 40 hours of TV programming that aired in north-central Illinois between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. for five weeks. Programs were rated most popular nationwide among viewers aged 6-11 years according to Nielsen Media Research.
The sample consisted of the 10 most-viewed hours from each of four sources: cable programs such as "SpongeBob SquarePants"; Saturday network programs such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"; syndicated programs such as "Everybody Loves Raymond"; and network primetime programs such as "American Idol."
The sample yielded 1,424 advertisements, 426 (or 29.9 percent) of them for food products.
The researchers then coded each ad as being aimed at a child or an adult audience; foods by type; verbal or visual health-related messages; and characteristics of all human characters.
The second part of the analysis focused on the nutritional breakdown of the advertised foods using data obtained from Nutrition Facts labels.
Heavily advertised foods included Burger King Kids Meal chicken tenders, Jell-O Pudding Bites (chocolate and vanilla), McDonalds Happy Meal french fries, Post Fruity Pebbles cereal and Wendys Kids Meal crispy chicken nuggets.
Despite the heavy marketing of such foods, Harrison and her co-author say "parental involvement is the most important factor in the determination of the family diet." "Parents can work to maintain the integrity of the family pantry not only through selective shopping, but also through efforts to instruct their children about food and nutrition."
Also, because research demonstrates a connection between TV viewing and obesity for children and adults alike, parents could curb eating in their household by limiting their childrens – and their own – television viewing.
Other adults should join parents in the "food fight" to combat childhood obesity, Harrison said. The food industry and advertisers, for example, "bear some responsibility for peddling nutritionally inadequate foods so aggressively to kids."
"Also, the continued investment of the medical and public health communities will be needed if parents are to be successful in helping their children resist the influence of commercial food advertising."
Andrea Lynn | EurekAlert!
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