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Rudd report says food companies can do better in advertising to children

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A new report released Monday (Nov. 6) by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has found that self-regulatory efforts by some food and beverage producers have been paying off, resulting in reduced child-directed, food-related advertising on TV and online over the past decade. 

Yet, industry has more work to do in promoting healthier food choices to children, says the Rudd Center in its 214-page report, FACTS 2017 Food industry self-regulation after 10 years: Progress and opportunities to improve food advertising to children.

The report, which was presented on Monday (Nov. 6) at the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting in Atlanta, Ga., is mostly focused on the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulatory program administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) that aims to change what foods are advertised to kids because of concerns about childhood obesity.

Since the initiative launched in 2007, 18 of the nation’s leading food and beverage producers, retailers and even chain restaurants – including Burger King, the Campbell Soup Company, and Nestlé USA - have joined and pledged to promote healthier food choices in child-directed advertising.

The effort has resulted in some gains over the past decade, Rudd Center researchers found. Those include a decline in total food-related TV advertising viewed by children, “modest improvements” in the nutritional quality of food and drinks advertised to children, and a significant increase in advertising of fruit and vegetables.

However, Rudd Center researchers also found that in 2016, less than 10% of food ads promoted products in healthier categories, including dairy, bottled water, fruit or vegetables.

As a result, the report urges CFBAI companies to respond to “repeated calls from public health experts” to strengthen nutrition standards for products that the group identifies as healthier, raise the age of children covered under the initiative to 14 instead of 12 years old, and expand the types of media covered by their pledges to include mobile apps and YouTube videos.

“The food and beverage companies participating in the voluntary initiative should be recognized for actions they have taken to reduce advertising to children,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center and lead author of the study.

“However, limitations in self-regulatory pledges allow companies to continue to advertise unhealthy products to children,” she said in a statement. “Furthermore, increased advertising by companies that do not participate in CFBAI has offset much of the reduction in advertising by CFBAI companies, and children continue to view thousands of TV ads per year for unhealthy food and drinks, including ads for candy, snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food that target them directly.”

The Rudd Center study, for instance, found that child-directed food advertising on TV for companies that don’t share the CFBAI pledge – primarily restaurants and candy companies – increased by 36% for preschoolers and 27% for children in the 2007-2016 period.

Moreover, children’s exposure to TV ads by non-participating fast food restaurants (for products excluding kids’ meals) on all types of TV programming increased by 95% for preschoolers and 61% for children, averaging almost two ads viewed per day.

On the bright side, Rudd Center said the study found that youth exposure to all food-related TV advertising declined from 2007 to 2016, by 4% for preschoolers, by 11% for six- to eleven-year-old children and by 14% for young teens, aged 12 through 14.

The Rudd Center researchers also found that less food advertising on children’s TV shows by CFBAI companies, as well as reduced time spent watching TV, “contributed to much of the decline in food-related TV ads viewed by children in all age groups.”

The study monitored online activities by food and beverage companies and found that the number of children visiting popular CFBAI-company websites promoting children’s food brands in 2009 declined by 80% or more, while four of the most popular websites have been discontinued.

Rudd Center researchers also examined 319 products that CFBAI companies said met the nutrition requirements allowing those products to be in child-directed ads and found the almost 60% of the products did not meet Smart Snacks nutrition standards because of excessive sugar, fat, and/or sodium content.

The Smart Snacks requirement is set by USDA and determines what foods can be sold at schools.

The nutrition standards that are being used to determine what foods can be included in child-directed advertising has been an issue for health advocates since the beginning of the CFBAI, which originally allowed companies to set their own standards for what foods can be advertised to children, the report noted.

“Although companies were required to utilize science-based standards, 18 different companies with products in the same categories used different definitions of ‘healthy,’" Rudd Center researchers said in their report.

CFBAI addressed that in 2011, by introducing new, category-specific and uniform nutrition criteria, setting limits on calories, saturated fat, sodium, and total sugar for 10 different categories of foods and drinks. The new criteria also required that eligible products include a specified amount of nutrient components to encourage, including fruit, vegetables, dairy, and/or whole grain, or fortification.

These changes went into effect in 2013 and have not yet been evaluated comprehensively, the Rudd Center reported.

One evaluation of food ads on Nickelodeon in 2015 found a small improvement and noted that unhealthy product percentages went down from 69% in 2010 to 65% in 2010. The same study, however, also found that the total number of ads for unhealthy products increased during this time.

“Furthermore, the list of products approved for advertising to children by CFBAI companies as of July 2017 included products with calories consisting primarily of added sugars, such as Popsicles, Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit Gushers, and KoolAid, as well as fried chicken nuggets and french fries from fast-food restaurants, and cereals consisting of approximately one-third added sugar,” researchers wrote.

Another criticism of CFBAI has been that the nutrition standards adopted for the program apply only to products that appear in the ads.

“Even if the majority of products offered by the brand do not meet the nutrition standards, the brand can advertise directly to children either by only showing products that meet the nutrition standards, or by showing a brand logo without any products (as in banner ads on the internet),” Rudd Center said.

So, in 2013, McDonald’s and Burger King were advertising their brand to children, even though just 12 of their kids’ meals met the CFBAI requirements out of 328 possible combinations of kids’ meals offered at their restaurants, the report noted.

“Ten years after the launch of food industry self-regulation, food advertising to children remains far from the goal of supporting healthful diets,” Harris said in a statement on Monday. “The food and media industries must act to address repeated calls from parents, policymakers and children’s health advocates to strengthen industry self-regulation and take meaningful action to ensure that marketing for food and beverages does not continue to put children’s health at risk.”

The Rudd Center study comes a little less than a year after CFBAI published its own progress report in Dec. 2016, stressing that participating companies have been making an effort to improve the nutritional quality of foods that are advertised to children.

Cereals, meals, yogurts and snacks were the types of food most frequently advertised to children, and companies made steps to make their offerings in those categories more nutritious, the progress report found.

As part of those efforts, Kellogg’s in 2015 increased the whole-grain content and reduced sugar in Apple Jacks and Fruit Loops cereals, which now contain 10 grams (g) of sugar per serving, compared to 12 grams in the past. Burger King on the other hand, replaced apple slices with unsweetened apple sauce, which offers a full serving of fruit, and McDonald’s reintroduced Cuties mandarins as a fruit option in six of its Happy meals, the report stated.

The CFBAI progress report also found that ads on Nickelodeon went down from 29% in 2015 to 17% in 2016. In 2016, 75% of participant foods contained at least a half serving of fruit, vegetables, whole grains or dairy, compared to 48% in 2010, the progress report stated.

Though the report indicated no “significant” compliance problems, it noted that on some occasions, foods outside of CFBAI’s uniform criteria appeared in child-directed TV and video-on-demand programming.

In 2015, two groups filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that CFBAI’s participants violated their pledges because ads for foods that did not meet CFBAI’s requirements were available on YouTube Kids – a Google app. CFBAI did review the complaint and found that the products were not intentionally placed on the app, but were being accessed through company-owned channels or user-generated videos on YouTube.

The CFBAI said in its progress report that it worked with Google to ensure that company-owned channels on YouTube would not be available on the YouTube kids app.

 

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