Expert Panel Recommends Children 14 and Under Be Protected by Food Marketing Policies

Food Marketing Guidelines

Story at-a-glance -

  • The food industry’s current voluntary self-regulation program doesn’t go far enough to protect children from junk food marketing
  • The average child sees 12 to 21 TV commercials for a food product every day
  • The foods most heavily targeted at children include soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, salty snacks, and baked goods

By Dr. Mercola

In the US, food advertising and marketing is regulated by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which states that such marketing cannot be false, deceptive, or unfair.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has also created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is “a voluntary self-regulation program comprising many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies.”1

If the words “voluntary” and “self-regulation” sound concerning to you, they should. Members of this Initiative pledge to only feature food options that meet certain criteria in ads directed at kids, while at the same time not emphasizing toys and promotional characters that will obviously heavily influence a child’s perception of the food.

However, research has shown that the food industry’s supposed self-regulation is nonsense, with television advertisements for children’s meals appearing significantly from those geared toward adults.2

The ads geared toward children featured far more toy premiums and giveaways, for instance, along with food packaging images, street views of the restaurant and an emphasis on giveaways and movie tie-ins.

Now a panel of experts convened by the Healthy Eating Research program is calling for increased protection for children from predatory food marketing.

Expert Recommendations Call for Increased Protection for Children Aged 12-14

According to the Healthy Eating Research report, the industry’s current voluntary self-regulation program doesn’t go far enough to protect children. Their recommended guidelines aim to “close major loopholes that currently leave kids unprotected.”3

For starters, current regulations apply only to children aged 11 and under, which leaves a significant number of adolescents aged 12-14 at risk. The report notes that older children are uniquely impressionable and vulnerable to food marketing, in part because of their stage of brain and cognitive development.

In addition to being susceptible to marketing overall, adolescents are especially susceptible to marketing for tempting foods that require well-developed self-regulatory abilities to resist.

At the same time, older kids are exposed to stealth forms of marketing in social media that may be disguised as entertainment or even messages from peers. According to the report:

“Children ages 12 to 14 face heightened risk from the influence of unhealthy food marketing due to their greater independence, higher levels of media consumption, and recent increases in the amount of marketing to children ages 12 and older for unhealthy food and beverage products.”

Responsible Guidelines to Close the Loopholes

The report goes even further, calling for major loopholes that allow junk foods to infiltrate kids’ lives to be closed. For instance, a media program or venue is currently considered to be “child-directed” if children make up 35 percent or more of the expected audience. The expert panel is calling for this to be lowered to 25 percent or when ads are designed to get kids’ attention.

Current guidelines also apply only to individual products, but more responsible guidelines should apply to both products and brands. There are also a significant number of marketing venues that are exempt from the voluntary guidelines.

The report calls for marketing guidelines to apply to all marketing aimed at kids and in places where kids live, learn and play. Examples of venues that are currently exempt, but wouldn’t be under the proposed guidelines, include the following. For more details, check out the Healthy Eating Research infographic below.4

Toy giveawaysIn-store displays
Social mediaMarketing on food packages
SponsorshipsMarketing in middle schools and high schools

Responsible Foods Marketing to Kids Infographic Preview

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$1.6 Billion a Year Is Spent on Food Marketing to US Youth

As you might imagine, the majority of that amount is spent on foods that are high in sugar, unhealthy fats and sodium, and low in nutritive value. In fact, the foods most heavily targeted at children include soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, salty snacks, and baked goods.5

As it stands, television ads are still the primary route that junk food makers target your kids. But that is quickly changing with the growth of digital technology. Food advertising spending on interactive video games targeting 3- to 11-year-olds was projected to reach $1 billion in 2014.

Junk food makers are also targeting kids via the Internet, cells phones and text messages, computer games and in movies.6 Currently, the average child sees 12 to 21 TV commercials for a food product every day, and food marketers continue spending on increasing numbers of ads because … it works.

As reported by The Weight of the Nation:7

“Food marketing to children and youth has been shown to increase: preference for advertised foods; consumption of advertised foods; overall calorie consumption; and requests to parents to purchase advertised foods (known as "pester power").”

Pizza Makes Up a Significant Portion of Kids’ Diets

In a recent survey of US kids aged 2 to 19, 20 percent of younger kids and 23 percent of teens ate pizza on any given day,8 making it a top contributor to kids’ total caloric intake. And on days kids ate pizza, the study found they also tended to eat more calories overall, along with more sugar and sodium. 

Nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential. Unfortunately, many kids are not getting the nutrients they need. It’s not only pizza that’s the problem. Separate research shows:9

  • Nearly 40% of children's diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats
  • Only 21% of youth age 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day

This is a veritable recipe for disease, and is a primary reason why many of today's kids are arguably less healthy now than most all previous generations. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even liver disease -- these are diseases that once appeared only in middle-age and beyond, but are now impacting children. Mental health is also at stake.

One study from British researchers revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5.10  For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ.

Along with the potential for lowered IQ, a junk-food diet can also set the stage for asthma, eczema, and a variety of allergies, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune diseases. In fact, most of the leading diseases plaguing the US are diet-related, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

Nutritional deficiencies in your child's first years of life can even lead to deficits in brain function that put them at risk of behavioral problems -- from hyperactivity to aggression -- that can last into the teenage years and beyond. The importance of proper nutrition simply cannot be overstated.

Wendy’s Removes Soda from Kids’ Meals

In light of evidence linking the consumption of sugary drinks to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and tooth decay, fast-food restaurants are trying to protect their public image by making small steps in the right direction. In 2013, McDonald’s agreed to remove soda as the default beverage in their Happy Meals, which is set to take effect this year. Now fast-food giant Wendy’s has become the latest to remove soda from kids’ meals, joining other chains like Chipotle and Panera. CSPI senior nutrition policy counsel Jessica Almy noted:11

"While parents bear most of the responsibility for feeding their children well, restaurant chains also need to do their part… Restaurants should not be setting parents up for a fight by bundling soda with meal options designed for kids. Wendy's is taking a responsible step forward that will improve children's health and make it easier for parents to make healthy choices for their children. We hope Burger King, Applebee's, IHOP, and other chains follow suit."

The removal of soda hardly makes a kids’ meal from McDonald’s or Wendy’s healthy, but it is one more nail in the coffin for soda makers, who are among the most aggressive marketers to children. Research has even shown that drinking just one additional sugary drink each day increases children’s risk of obesity by 60 percent12 -- so even one less soda a day could make a difference. 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 (and your child’s) daily recommended intake of fructose.

Global Soft Drink Sales Grow Nearly 3 Percent a Year

The soda industry is a $75-billion market,13 an industry that reached its greatest heights in the US during the 1980s and 1990s, when Coca-Cola began pushing larger drink sizes and “upsizing.” Fountain drink sizes grew more than 50 percent by 1990, and in 1994, the 20-ounce plastic bottle was introduced in the US. As people drank more and more soda, rates of obesity and diabetes soared, and while the soda industry still denies to this day any connection, research suggests otherwise.

The “supersized” mentality seems to have backfired for Coca-Cola and other beverage companies, because as the health risks become clear, sales have been on a steady downward spiral. Last year, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans said they actively try to avoid soda in their diet -- a significant increase from 2002, when only 41 percent were trying to avoid soda.14 Yet, globally, sales are on the rise, growing at a rate of 2.7 percent a year,15 with companies like Coca Cola keen to increase it further.

As business columnist Justin Fox told Bloomberg:16

In the 1990s, I remember Coca-Cola emphasizing that it accounted for almost 2 percent of global fluid intake, with the implication that the other 98 percent -- or at least some of it -- was ripe for conquest.”

There are over 61.5 million children under the age of 14 in the US,17 and for American businesses, these kids represent one of the most powerful demographics to be captured. As noted in the documentary film Consuming Kids, below, 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. Coca-Cola also knows they’ve got a prime target in adolescents, and the company decided to target the teen market directly last summer. Teens, while notorious for their soft-drink consumption, have been quickly bailing ship and opting for energy drinks instead. So Coca-Cola printed the 250 most common teen names on Coke bottles, hoping to entice teens with the “personalized” drinks. It worked. Sales increased by 1 percent in North America as a result.18

Don’t Let Your Child Become a Brainwashed Marketing Statistic

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. Remember the study that found kids who ate the most processed foods had lower IQ scores?

Well, the converse 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.19 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.

Ideally, children under the age of 3 should not be watching any TV, 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" campaign20 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.