Unhealthy snacks heavily advertised to children: UConn study

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

Does snack marketing to children need to be better controlled?
Does snack marketing to children need to be better controlled?

Related tags Snacks Nutrition

A study claims that while snacks in schools are getting healthier, snack companies are still targeting children with unhealthy snacks.

The University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity​ said companies have more nutritionally sound snacks within schools, meeting the Smart Snacks school standards. However, companies are heavily advertising less nutritious snacks to children and teens on TV and online. In many cases, the healthier snacks are not available outside of the walls of school.

UConn’s study measured the health of snacks by whether they were acceptable under the USDA’s Smart Snacks standards,​ which were developed to find food, beverages and snacks that can be sold in schools outside of the meal programs. Smart Snacks have a limit set on total fat, sodium, sugar, calories, saturated fat and trans fat per serving.

What companies spend and what kids see

Dr. Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and one of the authors of the Snack FACTS study​, told BakeryandSnacks that while manufacturers have been paying lip service to giving children healthier choices, more than 40% of ads centered to children and teens are for what could be described as “junk food”.

“The bulk of what kids are still seeing are sweet and savory snacks like chips, fruit snacks, pop, cookies crackers, those types of things,” ​Harris said. “There really aren’t healthy choices. They are not things companies should be encouraging children to consume more of through marketing.”

Almost 60% of advertising spending went to sweet and savory snacks, while yogurt accounted for 26% of spending. About 11% of advertising went to fruit and nut brands.

Black children targeted more

According to Snack FACTS:

  • Black children saw 64% more snack food ads on TV than white children saw.
  • However, black children and teens also saw 50% more ads for fruit and 80% more ads for yogurt brands.
  • Black children also saw 99% more ads for savory snacks than white children.

Of the brands that advertised in 2014, General Mills, PepsiCo, Kellogg Company and Mondelēz International spent a total of $784m and were responsible for 62% of spending.

On the plus side, the yogurt marketed to young children is in line with healthy nutritional standards, according to the study, as 95% meets the Smart Snacks guidelines. General Mills has spent a considerable amount of money on promoting this brand, spending $133m, or 40% of its ad dollars, on showcasing its yogurt brands

Overall, 43% of companies advertised products that met Smart Snacks standards and could be sold at schools across the US.

Seeing different snacks inside and outside of school

While there are healthier snacks available in schools, Harris noted that many of these snacks from large manufacturers are variations on unhealthy snacks with nearly identical packaging.

“Even within the same brand, if you take a brand like Lay’s Potato Chips, there are Baked Lay’s in schools,”​ she said. “They even have a new variety of reduced fat Doritos that meets the school nutrition standards, but those aren’t the ones advertised to kids on TV.”

“Even though they’re making these healthy options available in schools, they’re still marketing the worse stuff to kids. In some cases, they’re not even selling the product outside of school. Reduced fat Doritos or whole grain Pop-Tarts are only available in schools and not available outside of the schools.”

Picture form Snack FACTS, showcasing how different in-school snacks look versus their out-of-school counterparts.

Harris, who has followed the snack industry for years, said manufacturers have frequrently said they don’t market healthier snacks to children because “they don’t like them,”​ but she said it’s confusing to sell something outside of school that is similarly packaged to the in-school healthy options.

“There is an industry self-regulation program in place now called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, but this is still happening even though industry is promising to market healthier choices to children under 12,”​ she said. “There are plenty of loopholes in their promises.”

Harris recommends closing those loopholes, including one that only regulates marketing on children up to 11 years old. She believes the age should instead be 14. Harris also would like to include all media and other places where children are marketed to, as the definition of what they consider to be “child-directed marketing” is very specific right now.

“I’m sure the companies will sell more of the unhealthy stuff outside of the schools, but they can’t really say they’re trying to promote [the healthy items],”​ Harris said. “[Manufacturers should] be part of the solution to getting kids to eat heather, but they’re just offering them healthy options at school and not elsewhere.”

We've contacted the Snack Food Association and Frito-Lay for comment and are awaiting a response.

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