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Wednesday, December 07, 2005 

Institute of Medicine lays the smackdown on SpongeBob

The Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has gone on record saying that Food Marketing Aimed at Kids Influences Poor Nutritional Choices:

Food and beverage marketing targeted to children ages 12 and under leads them to request and consume high-calorie, low-nutrient products, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The report offers the most comprehensive review to date of the scientific evidence on the influence of food marketing on diets of children and youth.

Concern has focused on food and beverage marketing practices because of the increase in new products targeted specifically to children and youth over the past decade and the media's increasing role in socializing young people. Companies spent an estimated $10 billion to market foods, beverages, and meals to U.S. children and youth in 2004, and four of the top 10 items that children ages 8 to 12 say they can buy without parental permission are either foods or beverages.

The committee assessed hundreds of relevant studies and rigorously reviewed evidence from more than 120 of the best designed to determine what effects marketing may have on children's diets and health. Most of these studies focused only on television advertising, a shortcoming that should be addressed in future research, given that marketing strategies are rapidly evolving and now employ many tactics beyond television advertising, including Internet marketing, mobile phone ads, and product placements in video games and other media. For the most part, the committee did not have access to the substantial body of proprietary market research data held by marketing firms and food, beverage, and restaurant companies.

The committee found strong evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences and purchase requests of children ages 2 through 11 years old and affects their consumption habits, at least over the short term. Most advertising geared toward children promotes high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, beverages, and meals, which, the committee concluded, influences children to request and choose these products. There is not enough evidence to determine the extent to which marketing influences the preferences and consumption habits of 12- to 18-year-olds; too few studies have focused on teens.

The evidence on whether television advertising directly affects children's long-term dietary patterns is limited and less conclusive. However, nutrition studies show that America's children and youth are consuming too many calories and too much added sugar, fat, and salt. Moreover, they are consuming less-than-recommended amounts of many key nutrients, including calcium, vitamin E, and fiber.
You can find the report at this link to read all of the findings (note: it ain't free).

As a parent, I'm of a mixed opinion on this. I was still home for the Today show this morning, and the report was discussed, saying that pressure would be put on companies first to stop this kind of marketing, and if that failed, the legislature may very well take up the issue. Even as a public health professional, though, I think the bulk of the responsibility lies with the parents, not the government, to help our kids make smart choices. My kids are age (almost) 6 and 3 1/2, and of course they'd rather eat SpongeBob cereal than, say, Raisin Bran, or have a Barbie pop tart as a snack instead of a banana. But how much blame lies with the parents for buying the junk food in the first place (even if we're cajoled into it by our kids)?

There are lots of parents out there who absolutely ban "junk food" from their homes. I can understand that--it's not healthy, it's mainly empty calories, whole grains are better. But I don't know that's the way to go either--you're not teaching your children about temptation and smart choices, you're simply shielding them from it.

I don't know what the right answers are. My kids generally eat healthy. My husband or I cook something homemade almost every night. We try to limit the processed foods as much as possible, and my kids generally drink milk or water, with the occasional juice. But we do have "junk" around the house, and our kids definitely love cookies and potato chips and ice cream. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing--even if it's junk food being marketed by Dora the Explorer and Shrek. I respect the IoM's work and trust their conclusions, but I wonder that the wrong things are going to come out of this--more regulation by the government, without a coincident increase in concern by parents.


About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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