Junk Food: Just as Bad as Cigarettes, and Marketing Tactics Also Rival Those of Big Tobacco

Story at-a-glance -

  • The documentary Consuming Kids reveals the shrewd practices of the multi-billion dollar marketing machine designed to turn your kids into loyal, lifelong consumers who will also influence how the entire family spends its money
  • Children age two to 11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day. Ninety-eight percent of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar, or sodium. Most are also low in fiber
  • A UN official recently warned that obesity is a bigger global health threat than tobacco use, and that this fact isn’t taken as seriously as it should be
  • He urges nations to place stricter regulations on unhealthy foods, restrict junk food advertising, and amend agricultural subsidies that make unhealthy processed foods cheaper than healthy foods

By Dr. Mercola

There are over 61.5 million children under the age of 14 in the US,1 and for American businesses, these kids represent one of the most powerful demographics to be captured.

Not only do these children spend $40 billion a year on snacks, toys, and electronics, using money given to them by their parents or family members, they also exert a powerful influence on their parents' spending.

As noted in the documentary film Consuming Kids, children under 12 influence adult spending worth a staggering $700 billion a year, which equates to the combined economy of 115 of the world's poorest countries.

The film also reveals the shrewd business practices of the multi-billion dollar marketing machine that has one sole purpose: to turn your kids into loyal, lifelong consumers who will also influence how the entire family spends its money.  

Much of this money is spent on processed junk foods, which has been overwhelmingly implicated in rising obesity and chronic disease rates—especially among kids.

Captivating children's attention with superheroes and other cartoon characters, using freebie toys to entice them, even ensuring the checkout aisles at grocery stores are stocked with candy bars within a toddler's reach - all intentional marketing towards children.

What's worse, according to recent research into food addiction, "highly processed foods can lead to classic signs of addiction like loss of control, tolerance, and withdrawal,2" Time Magazine reports.  The sugar, salt, and trans fats formulas to these processed foods are also intentional, as many "food scientists" have collaborated to ensure human taste receptors are manipulated by these irresistible goods. 

Obesity Poses Greater Threat to Health Than Smoking

Another Time Magazine article quotes UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, as saying that "obesity is a bigger global health threat than tobacco use," and that this fact isn't taken as seriously as it should be.

His statements were delivered at the opening of the 2014 World Health Organization's annual summit. De Schutter ultimately wants nations to join forces to place stricter regulations on unhealthy foods:

"Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed," he said.

"The Special Rapporteur has previously agitated for greater governmental action on junk foods, including taxing unhealthy products, regulating fats and sugars, cracking down on advertising for junk food, and rethinking agricultural subsidies that make unhealthy food cheaper," Time Magazine notes.

'Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability,' he said, 'but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are offered, at what price, to whom they are made available, and how they are marketed.'"

The idea that being overweight can be more harmful than smoking is likely to make many balk, considering how "normal" it has become to carry around extra pounds, but in terms of overall health effects and subsequent health care costs, it's likely true. For example, data collected from over 60,000 Canadians show that obesity leads to more doctor visits than smoking.3

Canadian and American obesity statistics are neck-to-neck, with about one-quarter to one third of adults in the obese category. A staggering two-thirds of Americans are overweight. This does indeed place a heavy burden on the health care system. It's important to realize that a large number of diseases are directly attributable to obesity, including:

Diabetes Cancer Congestive heart failure Enlarged heart Pulmonary embolism
Polycystic ovarian syndrome Gastro-esophageal reflux disease Fatty liver disease Hernia Erectile dysfunction
Urinary incontinence Chronic renal failure Lymph edema Cellulitis Stroke
Pickwickian syndrome Depression Osteoarthritis Gout Gallbladder disease

The Rise of Stealth Marketing

Kids are quite literally being deceived into destroying their health potential by junk food companies seeking revenue. And there's nothing "accidental" about rising childhood obesity rates when you take deceptive marketing into account. Marketing to children has turned into a full-blown science in its own right. For example, the featured film reveals how "the nag factor" has been studied to the point that marketers can be advised on "what kind of tantrums work better."

Yes, ads are actually designed to increase the number of times your child will keep asking you for the product—i.e. drive you completely batty and/or embarrass you in public until you give in just to make it stop. With advances in technology, the avenues for marketing have also grown exponentially over the past 30 years. It is no longer restricted to TV ads. Kids are now exposed to clever marketing via brand licensing, product placement, schools, stealth marketing, viral marketing, DVDs, games, and the internet. There are so many ways to reach children today that there's a brand in front of your child's face nearly every moment of every day. As summarized by Top Documentary Films:4

"Drawing on the insights of health care professionals, children's advocates, and industry insiders, the film focuses on the explosive growth of child marketing in the wake of deregulation, showing how youth marketers have used the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to transform American children into one of the most powerful and profitable consumer demographics in the world.

Consuming Kids pushes back against the wholesale commercialization of childhood, raising urgent questions about the ethics of children's marketing and its impact on the health and well-being of kids."

As mentioned in the film, what we're seeing is a rise of "360 degree immersive marketing," designed to convince children that life is about buying and "getting." It's about turning children into loyal lifelong consumers, and when it comes to processed foods, kids are being brainwashed into believing junk foods will make them healthy and happy. The truth, however, is diametrically opposed to such propaganda. According to a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM),5 children age two to 11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day. And nearly all (98 percent) of these are for products that are high in processed, damaged fats, sugar, and/or sodium. Most (79 percent) are low in fiber.6 According to the IOM:

"The marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages is linked to overweight and obesity. A 2006 IOM report provided evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences, requests, and short-term consumption of children."

An Unstoppable 'Beast' Set on Devouring Your Kids

In the late 1970s, in the wake of rising concerns about sugary cereals and children's inability to understand the intent of advertising, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to ban all ads aimed at kids below the age of eight. After all, a young child cannot understand that an ad is not an impartial infomercial that tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth... For this reason, advertising aimed at children is grossly underhanded, if not outright immoral.

When it comes to junk food advertising, a question that must be asked is: where's the liability for lying to kids about food and nutrition? To say that something is good for you, when in reality it destroys your metabolic function and promotes obesity—and all its associated health problems—is a tremendously harmful lie. From my perspective, this is a lie that processed food manufacturers should be held accountable for. Why is it a crime to kill someone instantly, but not when you're killing people slowly? Not surprisingly, Big Business stepped in and convinced Congress to block the FTC's attempts to bar advertising to children.

This dangerous practice of marketing addictive junk foods to kids is a despicable, predatory act that is even more perverse than the tactics Big Tobacco used for decades.   

Congress actually passed "The FTC Improvement Act," which stripped the FTC of the power and authority to regulate marketing to children. As noted in the featured documentary, before deregulating children's TV marketing, children's spending had risen at a modest four percent per year. After deregulation, children's spending skyrocketed to 35 percent per year, from $4.2 billion a year in 1984 to $40 billion a year today—an 852 percent increase in less than three decades!

Junk Food Marketing Works and Alters Food Preferences Long-Term

There's no doubt that junk food advertising works, and works long-term. Research7 shows when parents fed their preschool-aged children junk foods high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, it had a lasting impact on their taste preferences. All of the children tested showed preferences for junk foods, and all (even those who were just three years old!) were also able to recognize some soda, fast food, and junk food brands.

The researchers concluded what you probably already suspect: kids who were exposed to junk food, soda, and fast food, via advertising and also because their parents fed them these foods, learned to recognize and prefer these foods over healthier choices. There's no doubt that this has an impact on their health, as nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential. One British study8 revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age three had lower IQ scores at age 8.5. 

For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ. As you might suspect, the opposite also held true, with those eating healthier diets experiencing higher IQ levels. For each measured increase in dietary score, which meant the child was eating more fruits and vegetables for instance, there was a 1.2-point increase in IQ. Moreover, as recently reported in Time Magazine,9 processed foods appear to be intrinsically addictive, leading kids into food addiction at an early age:

"The study of food addiction is an emerging and controversial field. But according to Ashley Gearhardt, a researcher who focuses on food addiction at the University of Michigan and helped establish the guidelines for the Yale Food Addiction Scale, highly processed foods can lead to classic signs of addiction like loss of control, tolerance, and withdrawal.

A growing body of research backs her up—and that's especially concerning in children because an addiction forged in a child's early years could put the child at more serious risk for chronically unhealthy eating into adulthood... Gearhardt explains: 'The more kids are exposed to [junk foods] early in life, the more it is going to set them up for problems. They're brains are still pretty plastic.'"

According to Gearhardt, the answer is not to increase availability of healthy foods. The answer is to REMOVE junk foods entirely. If they're still an option, kids will choose them every time over healthier fare. This would include removing vending machines from schools as well. If history is any indication, it may take a while to overcome the political inertia on this front, so most of the responsibility will fall on you, the parent. At the very least, you can abstain from feeding your family processed foods and junk foods, which can go a long way toward setting your child on a healthier path.

Misguided Dietary Advice Keeps on Promoting Obesity

It's important to understand that you get fat because you eat the wrong kind of calories. At the end of the day, your consumption of carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains and sugars (especially fructose), will determine whether or not you're able to manage your weight and maintain optimal health. This is because these types of carbs (fructose and grains) affect two important fat-regulating hormones, namely insulin and leptin. Fats and proteins affect these hormones to a far lesser degree.

Many processed food and beverage companies have instilled the false idea that their foods are a perfectly reasonable part of a healthy diet. Coca-Cola even ran a deceptive "anti-obesity" campaign not too long ago, promoting their products in conjunction with adequate exercise.  You ultimately get fat from specific ingredients in these products—all that high fructose corn syrup and other added sugars, including artificial sweeteners, which can cause you to pack on more pounds than regular sugar!

Dr. Robert Lustig, an expert on the metabolic fate of sugar, explains that fructose is "isocaloric but not isometabolic." This means you can have the same amount of calories from fructose and glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, but the metabolic effect will be entirely different despite the identical calorie count. This is a crucial point that must be understood. Fructose is in fact far worse than other carbs because the vast majority of it converts directly to FAT, both in your fatty tissues, and in your liver. And this is why counting calories does not work... As long as you keep eating fructose and grains, you're programming your body to create and store fat.

Furthermore, research by Dr. Richard Johnson, chief of the Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension at the University of Colorado and author of The Sugar Fix and The Fat Switch, demonstrates that large portions of food and too little exercise are NOT solely responsible for why you are gaining weight. Rather it's fructose-containing sugars that cause obesity—not by calories, but by turning on your "fat switch," a powerful biological adaptation that causes cells to accumulate fat in anticipation of scarcity (or hibernation). According to Dr. Johnson, based on his decades of research:

"Those of us who are obese eat more because of a faulty 'switch' and exercise less because of a low energy state. If you can learn how to control the specific 'switch' located in the powerhouse of each of your cells – the mitochondria – you hold the key to fighting obesity."

Just ONE Can of Soda Puts You Over the Daily Sugar Allowance for Optimal Health...

As a general guideline, I recommend limiting your fructose consumption to 25 grams per day, or even lower—15 grams per day—if you are insulin resistant, overweight, or have heart disease, diabetes, or any other disease stemming from insulin resistance. Meanwhile, just one can of Coke contains about 35 grams of sugar, which alone exceeds your daily recommended intake of fructose.

Contrary to what soda makers want you to believe, you can achieve optimal health without any added sugar or artificial sweeteners. In fact, if you want to understand energy balance, read up on how you can teach your body to burn fat for fuel rather than sugar or carbs. This requires cutting out virtually all added sugars. The health benefits of becoming fat adapted are strongly supported and confirmed by science, yet you won't get this information from most conventional health authorities. And the reason for this is because most conventional nutrition professionals are in the pocket of processed food companies.

The processed food industry's refusal to accept responsibility for leading you and your children astray is no different from Big Tobacco's long-standing refusal to admit their products caused lung cancer. Yet in the end, the truth prevailed. This is what needs to happen to the processed food industry as well. Their products are causing an incredible amount of chronic disease, yet they deceptively advertise their wares as healthy and good for you.10, 11 Perhaps as with tobacco, what we need is a major class action lawsuit to set the record straight, and put an end to the willful misdirection.

There is some encouraging news, however. As reported in a previous article in The Atlantic,12 consumption of soda is now "in freefall," with US consumption having declined by 40 percent since 2003. Unfortunately, many are simply switching to no- or low-cal beverages, which Coca-Cola is now trying to boost. 

Help Fight Back Against Predatory Marketing to Kids

Mounting research clearly demonstrates that even if you control the number of calories you eat, if those calories come from processed fructose and grains, you are at increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes), which includes insulin resistance, fatty liver, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides. In short, avoiding fructose in all its forms, along with other sugars, is imperative in order to avoid "flipping the fat switch" that will trigger your body to accumulate excess fat.

This means cutting out processed foods, as most are loaded with both processed sugars and trans fats. As noted earlier, a processed food diet strongly promotes excess weight, obesity, and related health problems, and the health risks associated with this type of diet now actually surpass the hazards of smoking. It's high time to acknowledge the role processed foods have played in creating the current obesity epidemic, worldwide.

As for combating the influence of marketing on your kids' dietary preferences, and ultimately their health, I'd advise you to limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV and surfing the web. Children under the age of three should not be watching any TV at all, as this is a crucial time of rapid brain development in which your child's brain is shaped in response to whatever they're exposed to. Unfortunately, marketing is everywhere, and you cannot insulate your child from all of it all of the time. However, in terms of mental and physical health, junk food ads are among the most harmful, and here you can lend your support for change. Talk to your kids about what they're seeing, and why fast food and processed foods simply aren't good for them—despite what the ad says.

Remember, ads are designed to sell products; not to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth... The Prevention Institute's "We're Not Buying It" campaign13 is petitioning President Obama to put voluntary, science-based nutrition guidelines into place for companies that market foods to kids. You can sign this petition now, but I urge you to go a step further and stop supporting the companies that are marketing junk foods to your children today.


Ideally, you and your family will want to vote with your pocketbook and avoid as much processed food as possible and use unprocessed raw, organic and/or locally grown foods as much as possible. If you and your kids are absolutely hooked on fast food and other processed foods, you're going to need some help and most likely some support from friends and family. Besides surrounding yourself with supportive, like-minded people, you can also review my article "How to Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods in 7 Steps" or read the book I wrote on the subject, called Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.

Finally, my free nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now. You need to first educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family. To give your child the best start at life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. Children will simply not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them.