Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has just published a report entitled “Cereal f.a.c.t.s. 2012″ (“Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score”). The report, available here, updates a 2009 effort to “document the nutrition quality and marketing of cereals to children” and announces that there has only been “limited progress” in this field in the past few years. As loyal readers of Weil’s Product Liability Monitor will note, we frequently monitor and report on studies like this since the obesity “epidemic” and related health care costs continue to appear on legislators’–and plaintiffs’ attorneys’–radar screens. A handful of such blog posts are available here. Only time will tell whether this recent Yale study will provide more “fuel to the fire” in terms of legislation and lawsuits targeting food content and advertising. Regardless, U.S. food companies should be aware of the study and some of its key conclusions.The report begins by noting a “striking” discovery in the 2009 review: “[c]ereal products marketed to children contained 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber, and 60% more sodium than products marketed to adults.” Moreover, “children saw more advertising for cereals than for any other food or beverage product.” Against this backdrop, the report discusses both “changes for the better” and “changes for the worse” since 2009.
Taking “the good” first, the study notes that “[f]rom 2009 to 2012, cereal companies improved the nutrition of most cereals marketed directly to children. Overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of 16 child-targeted brands.” Moreover, “[o]f the 22 different varieties of child-targeted cereals available in both 2008 and 2011, ten (45%) reduced the sodium, seven (32%)reduced sugar, and five (23%) increased fiber.”
In terms of advertising, the study found that cereal companies reduced certain forms of advertising directed to children. For example, at least two companies discontinued “advergame websites” and one company reduced banner advertising on third-party children’s websites.
And now for “the bad” according to the study: “cereal companies increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products.” In addition, companies “launched new child-targeted websites and increased banner advertising on third-party children’s websites for individual brands and existing websites.” The study notes that advertising costs for promoting child-targeted cereals totaled $264 million in 2011, an increase of 34% since 2008. In fact, cereal companies spent more to advertise children’s cereals than adult cereals (whereas in 2008, 41% more advertising costs were for adult cereals).
The study states that “[t]he net effect . . . is that cereal marketing to children in 2012 looks much the same as it did in 2009. Despite improvements in nutritional quality, the cereals advertised to children contain 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals.” That said, some companies do offer more nutritious and lower-sugar cereals for children.
The report claims that cereal companies “continue to aggressively target children with advertising for cereals . . . that rank at the bottom of their products in nutrition and at the top in added sugar.” It goes on to conclude that “[c]ereal companies have expressed a commitment to foster public health and be part of the solution to childhood obesity. However, they cannot do so by making incremental improvements in the sugar and sodium content of children’s cereals, while continuing to aggressively market their least nutritious cereals to children as young as two years old. Cereals that contain one spoonful of sugar in every three spoons of cereal are not healthful products that children should regularly consume.”
As noted at the outset of this post, we will have to wait and see if the less-than-glowing conclusions in this report find themselves being cited in legislative sessions or plaintiffs’ legal briefs. We will continue to monitor studies like this here at the Monitor as well as developments in litigation and legislation in this area.