Health Buzz: Fast Food Restaurants Increase Ads Aimed at Kids

Plus, learn the truth behind food companies' marketing claims.

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Fast Food Restaurants Increase Ads Aimed at Kids

Despite all the efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, fast food restaurants have become more aggressive in marketing their meals to kids, according to a new report released Monday from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Last year preschoolers saw 21 percent more ads for McDonald's, 9 percent more ads for Burger King, and 56 percent more ads for Subway compared to 2007, the Los Angeles Times reports. The exposure to these ads was even greater among kids ages 6 to 11. Race also seemed to be a factor with black children seeing 50 percent more ads than whites. What's more, in examining the food, just 12 of 3,039 meal combinations met the nutritional standards for preschoolers, and just 15 met the standards for older children. While most restaurants have healthy side dishes and beverages, the researchers found, they're rarely offered as an alternative to kids: Their child-friendly meals came with French fries 86 percent of the time and soda 55 percent of the time. The most popular items ordered by young children and teens had hefty amounts of saturated fat and sugar. The Yale study was conducted by analyzing the marketing tactics of 12 fast food chains and nutritional data in more than 3,000 kids' meals and 2,781 menu items.

Being skeptical of marketing claims made by the food industry can serve both adults and children well in the long run. In 2008, U.S. News spoke with two experts who have tracked the food industry—David Ludwig, a pediatrician, and Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University—to find out what consumers should be wary of.

From: 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know

1. Junk food makers spend billions advertising unhealthy foods to kids.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children through the traditional media as well the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes. An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. Promotions often use cartoon characters or free giveaways to entice kids into the junk food fold. PepsiCo has pledged that it will advertise only "Smart Spot" products to children under 12.

2. The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products.

In fact, according to a review led by Ludwig of hundreds of studies that looked at the health effects of milk, juice, and soda, the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was several times higher among industry-sponsored research than studies that received no industry funding. "If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science," he says.

3. Junk food makers donate large sums of money to professional nutrition associations.

The American Dietetic Association, for example, accepts money from companies such as Coca-Cola, which get access to decision makers in the food and nutrition marketplace via ADA events and programs, as this release explains. As Nestle notes in her blog and discusses at length in her book Food Politics, the group even distributes nutritional fact sheets that are directly sponsored by specific industry groups. This one, for example, which is sponsored by an industry group that promotes lamb, rather unsurprisingly touts the nutritional benefits of lamb. The ADA's reasoning: "These collaborations take place with the understanding that ADA does not support any program or message that does not correspond with ADA's science-based healthful-eating messages and positions," according to the group's president, dietitian Martin Yadrick. "In fact, we think it's important for us to be at the same table with food companies because of the positive influence that we can have on them."

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