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.