The study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the first to explore the nutritional composition of foods advertised to children using Nutrition Facts labeling.
Nutrient-poor high-sugar foods - candy, sweets and soft drinks - dominate (nearly 44 percent) the foods advertised during the TV programs children ages 6 to 11 watch most, the analysis found. Convenience/fast foods made up 34.2 percent of the advertisements during the programs.
There are not yet any recommended daily values (RDVs) for sugar, but these two groups of foods "exceed the RDVs of fat, saturated fat and sodium, and fail to provide the RDVs of fiber and certain vitamins and minerals," said Kristen Harrison, the lead author of the study.
A 2,000-calorie-a-day diet of foods in the child-audience ads "would exceed the RDV for sodium and provide nearly a cup of sugar," said Harrison, a professor of speech communication at Illinois and an expert on media effects on children and adolescents.
"How many kids actually eat a diet like that, I can't say," she said. "But it's important to note that this is the nutritional composition of the diet being marketed to kids and their families, and research shows that the more they are exposed to such advertising, the more likely they are to buy the advertised foods. So, heavy TV viewers probably follow a diet more similar to the TV-advertised diet than do lighter viewers."
Given the food industry's heavy marketing of convenience/fast foods and other refined, high-calorie products, Harrison said, "It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to maintain the moderation necessary to preserve their children's health."
Findings of the study appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health in an article titled "Nutritional Content of Foods Advertised During the Television Programs Children Watch Most." Harrison's co-author was Amy Marske, a graduate student at the time of the study and now a high school teacher in Chicago.
- Snack-time eating in TV advertising is depicted more often than breakfast, lunch and dinner combined. More than half of all eating is depicted in locations "rarely associated with mealtime eating" such as in cars or outdoors.
- Junk-food ads dominated, with far fewer ads for breads and cereals. The ads offered "little representation" of fruits and vegetables, dairy foods, meats, poultry and fish.
- Child actors' body size was unrelated to their eating behavior, "suggesting, erroneously, that eating and body weight are not related," Harrison said.
- Most ads featured no health-related messages. Of the few that did, the most common message was that advertised foods contained "some natural ingredients."
Harrison and Marske also evaluated the nutritional content of food advertised to adults during the most popular TV shows. They found that those ads were dominated (57.1 percent) by convenience/fast foods, fat and sodium.
"An individual eating a 2,000-calorie diet composed of the general-audience foods would consume considerably more than the RDVs of fat, saturated fat and sodium, while ingesting only a fraction of the RDVs of fiber, vitamin C, calcium and iron."
Harrison said kids' consumption of TV ads that tout poor food choices is especially troubling because childhood obesity is on the rise, TV advertising influences children's food purchases and purchase requests, and kids see so many TV food ads a day.
Harrison and Marske tallied an average of 10.65 food advertisements per hour in their sample. Other research has found that preteens watch on average nearly three hours of television a day, meaning that "the typical child aged 6-11 years would be exposed to approximately 11,000 food advertisements each year."
The researchers taped 40 hours of TV programming that aired in north-central Illinois between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. for five weeks. Programs were rated most popular nationwide among viewers aged 6-11 years according to Nielsen Media Research.
The sample consisted of the 10 most-viewed hours from each of four sources: cable programs such as "SpongeBob SquarePants"; Saturday network programs such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"; syndicated programs such as "Everybody Loves Raymond"; and network primetime programs such as "American Idol."
The sample yielded 1,424 advertisements, 426 (or 29.9 percent) of them for food products.
The researchers then coded each ad as being aimed at a child or an adult audience; foods by type; verbal or visual health-related messages; and characteristics of all human characters.
The second part of the analysis focused on the nutritional breakdown of the advertised foods using data obtained from Nutrition Facts labels.
Heavily advertised foods included Burger King Kids Meal chicken tenders, Jell-O Pudding Bites (chocolate and vanilla), McDonald's Happy Meal french fries, Post Fruity Pebbles cereal and Wendy's Kid's Meal crispy chicken nuggets.
Despite the heavy marketing of such foods, Harrison and her co-author say "parental involvement is the most important factor in the determination of the family diet." "Parents can work to maintain the integrity of the family pantry not only through selective shopping, but also through efforts to instruct their children about food and nutrition."
Also, because research demonstrates a connection between TV viewing and obesity for children and adults alike, parents could curb eating in their household by limiting their children's - and their own - television viewing.
Other adults should join parents in the "food fight" to combat childhood obesity, Harrison said. The food industry and advertisers, for example, "bear some responsibility for peddling nutritionally inadequate foods so aggressively to kids."
"Also, the continued investment of the medical and public health communities will be needed if parents are to be successful in helping their children resist the influence of commercial food advertising."