Breakfast food marketers insist that children won't eat cereals that aren't doused in sugar. They're wrong.
Breakfast is good. Children who eat breakfast every day are less likely to be obese, and more likely to be well-nourished than those who miss it. Cereals can be an excellent, fairly low-calorie means of delivering needed nutrients like whole grains and fiber. And, of course, there is the milk that goes along with it. On these matters, we and the cereal companies agree.
Where we disagree is how sweet these cereals must be, and which cereals should be marketed to children. The companies have a range of cereals in their portfolios. Why then, do they not market their better cereals -- regular Cheerios, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Quaker Oatmeal Squares -- to children? These cereals are high in whole grains and much lower in sodium and added sugars. They are hard for nutritionists to object to. But the companies, led by General Mills and Kellogg, claim that children will not eat cereal unless the cereals are highly sweetened. In a piece in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, top nutrition officials from these two companies said, "Food does not become nutrition until it is eaten," implying that cereals without lots of sugar will not leave the box.
We found in a study that when children are served low-sugar versions of cereals (Corn Flakes vs. Frosted Flakes for example), they eat the amount a child should have for breakfast, and add fruit and a small amount of sugar to do the sweetening. Children served high-sugar cereals consume much more cereal and sugar (from the cereal), and add less fruit. It is no wonder companies want to market the high-sugar versions to children -- they eat more cereal. The amount of excess sugar in children's cereals is depicted in a video using Cheerios vs. Honey Nut Cheerios as examples.
How do the companies navigate the tricky ground they stand on? They are feeling pressure about the scourge of childhood obesity, from the White House to leading medical groups, and hence the threat of government regulation looms large. But the basic business model is to maximize profits. Hence selling products that children overconsume.
One solution the industry itself proposes is self-regulation. The industry can argue that it will police itself -- that it will act in the best interests of children, and that government regulation will not be necessary. An example is the participation of General Mills, Kellogg, and Post in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which is "designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles."
Industry self-regulation is worth a try. If the companies can develop ways of protecting children from poor nutrition influences and not require government involvement, everyone wins. The question is whether industry promises get fulfilled -- and whether they are meaningful promises to begin with. In order to answer these questions, it is important to have objective data on industry sales and marketing practices, and to track these over time to see if changes are occurring.
Our team at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity is doing just that. Three years ago, we released a comprehensive report on the marketing of breakfast cereals to children. The report documented that cereal companies were speaking to children early, often, and when parents weren't looking. The least healthy cereals were the ones most aggressively marketed to children. Cereal companies were targeting children not only with television ads but through websites containing "advergames" and other branded activities, and advertising on popular kids' websites like Nick.com.
The companies have promised to do better, including enhancing the nutritional quality of cereals and expanding CFBAI advertising requirements. Thus, we launched a three-year follow up project using the same methods, to determine whether the children's cereal landscape has improved. This report, Cereal Facts 2012, is being released today.
Our study examined the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal marketed to children, families, and adults. There is some good news:
- General Mills and Kellogg delivered on their promise to improve nutritional quality by reducing sodium. General Mills also reduced the sugar in its child brands, and is halfway toward fulfilling its promise to reduce the sugar per serving to "single digits."
- Some brands reduced child-targeted advertising. The most notable change was that General Mills and Post discontinued their Millsberry.com and Postopia.com websites.
Sadly, there is more bad news than good:
- From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent.
- Companies spend more to advertise child brands than they spend on the healthier adult brands.
- The discontinuation of popular cereal-company advergame websites and associated banner advertising was partially offset by the introduction of new child-targeted websites and increased banner advertising for individual brands and existing websites. For example, Post replaced Postopia.com with PebblesPlay.com, and General Mills introduced advergame sites for Honey Nut Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
- Companies are developing yet new ways to target children. Kellogg introduced the first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.
- Post did not fulfill its nutrition promise to lower the sugar content of Pebbles cereals to 9 grams per serving.
- Hispanic and black youth exposure to cereal marketing increased from 2008 to 2011.The trend is of particular concern, as these young people face the highest rates of obesity and related diseases.
- Some new products, such as Kellogg's Krave cereal, continue the unfortunate tradition of implied health benefits on the package, child-oriented contests, and heavy exposure of children and teens to marketing, despite poor nutrition profiles.
The bottom line? Cereal marketing to children in 2012 looks much the same as it did in 2009. In 2009, it was easy to quantify the degree to which the companies promoted their healthiest cereals to children -- there was none. How much is there today? None. Cereal companies continue to push their least nutritious products -- Froot Loops, Reese's Puffs, Fruity Pebbles, Lucky Charms -- directly to children. Children also continue to see more advertising for cereals than for any other category of packaged food or beverage.
There is no doubt that children need protection from the masterful and ubiquitous marketing by companies of products known to be unhealthy. Industry's promises to behave better have an empty ring when they continue the marketing of their least healthy products to children.