US businesses don't market healthy diets to young Americans

17 August 2011

Groundbreaking study led by Deakin's Vivica Kraak to have flow on impact in Australia.

Restaurants, entertainment companies and food and beverage industry trade groups have made only limited progress to marketing healthier foods and beverages to children and adolescents between 2005 and early 2011, according to Deakin University Research Fellow, Vivica Kraak.

Her findings have been published in the September, 2011 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Because the battle against overweight and obesity is now an international one, the findings will certainly resonate here in Australia.

The World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention and Related Research and Training is based in Australia and headed up by Kraak’s PhD supervisor, Professor Boyd Swinburn, Alfred Deakin Professor in the School of Health and Social Development.

“Despite some recent pledges and promising actions, private-sector companies have not applied their full range of marketing resources and creativity to promote a healthy diet to young people,” said Kraak, who works in the Population Health Strategic Research Centre at Deakin University.

 “The food and beverage, entertainment and restaurant industries could do much more collectively to address the obesity problem among children and adolescents.”

For the first time, industry marketing practices and actions were evaluated against comprehensive recommendations issued in 2005 by the United States of America’s Institute of Medicine of the National Academies located in Washington, DC.

Industry Progress to Market a Healthful Diet to American Children and Adolescents

Restaurants and media companies have many untapped opportunities to promote a healthy diet to children and adolescents, according to the study.  Only two quick-serve restaurant companies - McDonald’s and Burger King - participate in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a 17-member industry-supported program initiated in 2006 to self-regulate marketing to young people. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association trade group did not encourage its members to participate in CFBAI or provide support for reformulating and promoting healthier meals served to young people.  While Sesame Workshop and Walt Disney Company developed nutrition standards for promoting food and beverage products, no children’s entertainment companies, including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney, participate in the CFBAI.

Food and beverage companies fared better in the analysis.  By 2011, a total of 15 companies are CFBAI members, and several sector leaders have committed to making their products healthier. Still, these companies have many opportunities for considerable improvement. Not all product changes have been substantial enough to meet uniform nutritional guidelines recommended by the U.S. government.

Additionally, most industry marketing pledges fail to protect children from all forms of marketing, and do not protect adolescents from unhealthy marketing through digital and interactive social media or mobile phones.

Kraak and her colleagues identified several opportunities that food and beverage companies, restaurants, entertainment companies and industry trade groups have to change the types of foods and beverages marketed to children and adolescents to meet a healthy diet, including:

  • use all  integrated marketing communication tools, including TV, print and digital media, to promote healthier food, beverage and meal choices that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • strengthen self-regulation programs such as the CFBAI, and expand their scope to protect adolescents, ages 13 to 17 years, from unhealthy marketing through digital and interactive social media or mobile phones;
  • support clear and consistent product labeling and use truthful, non-misleading health claims on products;
  • collaborate closely with the government and the nonprofit sector to advance their efforts; and
  • fund independent evaluations of their collective actions.

At the request of the U.S. Congress, in December 2005 the Institute of Medicine released an expert committee report, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, which concluded that current marketing practices did not support a healthy diet and put the long-term health of American children and adolescents at risk. The Institute of Medicine committee recommended ways in which various sectors - not just businesses but government and schools - could improve all marketing practices influencing young people and reduce their harmful effects.

Earlier research showed that food and beverage marketing influences what young people want to buy and their overall diet quality. And marketing is big business: according to a 2008 U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, 44 companies spent more than $1.6 billion marketing primarily unhealthy foods and beverages to children and adolescents in 2006. The FTC plans to release a follow up report on industry expenditures and marketing practices between 2006 and 2009 later this year. 

To examine progress between December 2005 and January 2011, the researchers reviewed a large body of evidence. They examined businesses’ websites; reports from a large number of public, private and nonprofit organizations; databases of existing research; government sources; and stories in the news.

A companion paper examining progress made by public-sector actors including government and schools is planned, and may be released in 2012.

Vivica Kraak Deakin University Research Fellow Vivica Kraak

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