The landscape of health and nutrition has undergone a dramatic transformation since Michelle Obama kicked off her “Let’s Move” campaign nearly three years ago. The venerable Food Pyramid was replaced with the bolder MyPlate graphic, school menus have been re-tooled to put a greater emphasis on fruits and veggies, and according to a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, the food and beverage industry is doing a better job of marketing healthier food to kids.
The newly issued follow-up to its 2008 report on food marketing, FTC’s A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report studied 2006-2009 food and beverage industry marketing expenditures and activities directed to children and teens and found food companies allocated $1.79 billion on marketing to youths ages 2-17 in 2009. Overall spending was down 19.5% from 2006, with most of that decrease coming from less spending on television ads to youths. However, while television spots are down, online ads are up—way up. FTC said food companies stepped up their spending to reach children and teens via online, mobile and viral marketing, by a whopping 50%.
The report findings were applauded by Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), who said the report affirmed that “self-regulation is an effective mechanism for ensuring that the products seen on children’s programming are foods and beverages that help families achieve a healthy diet.”
She went on to note the importance of responsible marketing practices. “Working through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), the food and beverage companies that account for the vast majority of child-directed marketing in the U.S. have implemented robust, voluntary changes that have changed the marketing landscape,” she said. “As a result, today virtually 100% of CFBAI members’ advertisements seen on children’s programming promote healthier diet choices and better-for-you products.
“In keeping with our industry’s culture of continuous improvement, CFBAI commitments have evolved to account for digital and social media, including websites, video games, mobile apps and word of mouth advertising,” she continued.
Amy Mudge, an attorney and a partner who works with matters related to children’s advertising within the regulatory and advertising and marketing practice group at Venable LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that advises food and drug companies on a variety of FDA and FTC matters, said she was pleased the FTC report recognized the progress and benefits of self-regulation but acknowledged that the notion of progress is tricky because it is tied both to corporate food marketing and a personal responsibility to healthy eating.
“The childhood obesity problem is not one that was created solely by marketers and will certainly not be solved solely by marketers,” she said. “In my experience with companies who market food for kids, they are keenly aware of their shared responsibility in advertising healthy meal and lifestyle choices and promoting eating a balance of foods in moderation. Allowing the CFBAI process and companies’ own initiatives to develop to evolve and grow is absolutely the right regulatory resolution.”
Ms. Mudge’s colleague, Todd Harrison, chair, FDA Group and partner at Venable, was equally measured in his response to the study. “Parents have significant nutritional information available to them when making purchasing decisions and while government oversight may be appropriate in certain instances it is not a substitute for good corporate practices and parental guidance,” he said.
Moving forward, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said he hoped the report findings would be helpful for policymakers and the public. “The encouraging news is that we’re seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts,” he said. “But there is still room for improvement: We will look for continued progress by the food industry and greater participation by the entertainment industry.”
According to the report, food company participation in self-regulation has increased, but some companies with significant marketing to children still have not joined the effort. The entertainment industry lags farther behind. With a few exceptions, media companies have not limited licensing of children’s characters and placement of ads during children’s programming to more nutritious foods.
Assessing Nutritional Content
In addition to offering its findings on the state of marketing to children, FTC also reported the nutritional profile of foods being marketed to children and adolescents, noting that “modest” improvements in cereals, drinks and fast food content from 2006-2009.
Cereals marketed to children ages 2-11 in 2009 had less sugar than in 2006 (a 0.9 gram decrease) and slightly more whole grain (an increase of 1.6 grams, or one-tenth of one serving). Marketing to children of the most sugary cereals—those with 13 grams or more sugar per serving—was virtually eliminated between 2006 and 2009.
Cereals with mostly refined grain, however, continued to dominate youth marketing in 2009. Cereals marketed primarily to children ages 2-11 were the least nutritious, averaging two grams more sugar and half the whole grain of cereal marketed to teens or to all audiences.
Drinks marketed to children and teens were slightly lower in calories in 2009 than in 2006, but still averaged more than 20 grams of added sugar per serving. Most of the improvement came from drinks marketed and sold in schools, as the result of a self-regulatory program launched in 2006 by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the American Beverage Association.
Water and 100% juice continued to make up only a small percentage of drinks marketed to children and teens in 2009 (16% of drinks marketed to children, and 8% of drinks marketed to teens).
Fast foods from Quick-Service Restaurants (QSR) marketed to both children and teens were found to be lower in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat in 2009 than in 2006. Restaurant menu items specifically identified as “children’s meals” were also deemed “more nutritious”than other QSR meals and main dishes marketed to children ages 2-11.
To gauge the impact of the changes in the food marketing landscape, FTC examined food consumption data from outside sources to look for signs that children and teens were changing their diets as food companies shift their marketing expenditures, marketing techniques or the nutrition content of the food marketed to youths. The report noted that over the past decade, children and teens had reduced their daily caloric intake, as well as their consumption of total fat, sodium and sugar.
Though the data from the report only looked as far as 2009, FTC noted that since 2009 many food companies have continued to improve the nutritional profile of their foods by reformulating existing products and introducing new ones. In July 2011, the CFBAI—whose member companies accounted for nearly 90% of advertising spending on foods marketed to children in 2009—announced standardized nutrition criteria that will take effect at the end of 2013.
While the report states that CFBAI’s uniform criteria would likely lead to further improvements in the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children, it also noted that the criteria in several specific food product categories may have little to no impact on nutritional quality because many foods marketed to children already met the new standards as of 2009.