How Food Marketing Is Making Kids Obese

Child drinking soda. Melissa Lomax Speelman/Moment/Getty Images

Packaged baby food is one thing—it’s a concept that makes sense, from a convenience standpoint, as infants make the transition from their mother’s milk or formula to learning to eat and digest real food. But “kid food” is another matter entirely. After all, food is food, and what’s healthy and nutritious for adults tends to be good for kids, too. And yet, we have an entire industry that’s devoted to feeding kids differently, often with sugary, starchy or fatty foods that are contributing to the obesity epidemic.

There are the ubiquitous snack foods, such as the so-called fruit snacks that don’t actually contain real fruit but appeal to kids because their boxes feature favorite cartoon characters like Scooby Doo or SpongeBob or Pixar or Disney characters. There are neon-colored breakfast cereals that pack more sugar in a serving than a chocolate chip cookie does; some of these cereals contain more than 50 percent sugar by weight, according to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group. Then, there are the sugary toaster pastries and cookies, the high-fat frozen dinners and boxes of mac and cheese, and the fruit drink pouches that are basically sugar water. All of these are aggressively marketed to kids.

The Power of Visual Suggestion

While it’s difficult to prove a causal link between the marketing of kids’ foods and the childhood obesity epidemic, there’s plenty of cause for concern. In a 2013 book Challenges and Opportunities for Change in Food Marketing to Children and Youththe Institute of Medicine highlights “evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences, requests, and short-term consumption of children” ages 2 to 11.

It also notes that the foods and beverages that are marketed to kids tend to be high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium, as well as low in nutritional value.

Indeed, when researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the nutritional content of food and beverage products marketed to children on TV, they also found that most of these products are high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and sodium.

It’s not just TV that’s to blame. In another study, researchers from Yale University found that 84 percent of the more than 3 billion display ads that were viewed on children’s websites between July 2009 and June 2010 promoted products high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium.

It’s easy to imagine how all this plays out: Viewing commercials or print ads for sugary, high-fat, or high-calorie snack foods, breakfast cereals, and junk foods influences kids’ food choices, leading them to beg Mom or Dad to buy the latest cereal or snack food that’s promoted by their favorite cartoon character. Ultimately, it encourages them to consume a less-than-healthy diet.

In fact, researchers at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that exposure to TV commercials for sugar-sweetened sodas between 2002 and 2004 was associated with a 9.4 percent increase in 5th-graders’ consumption of these drinks in 2004. Meanwhile, a 2010 study by researchers in Australia compared the exposure of kids, ages six to 11, to TV food advertising and the prevalence of obesity in kids in six Western countries. Kids’ exposure to TV food advertising ranged from a low of 1.8 minutes per day in The Netherlands to 11.5 minutes per day in the U.S. The researchers concluded that the contribution of TV food advertising to the prevalence of childhood obesity ranges from up to 18 percent in The Netherlands (as well as in Great Britain and Sweden) to up to 40 percent in the U.S.

Removing Unhealthy Influences

Rather than pitting highly paid marketing executives against five-year-olds, a better solution may be to set limits on the marketing of food to kids. There’s a quiet movement afoot to do just that. The hope is that if it succeeds, it would give parents a better chance of instilling healthy eating habits in their kids—and helping them from becoming overweight—without having to counter the influence of food manufacturers.  

It appears to be a promising strategy. When researchers from The Netherlands constructed a mathematical simulation model to assess whether eliminating kids’ exposure to TV food advertisements in the U.S. would affect childhood obesity rates, they found that—surprise!— it would: The researchers concluded that this change alone, that simply eliminating food advertisements directed at kids, could decrease obesity rates by 17 percent for boys and 15 percent for girls.

That’s a step in the right direction.


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Challenges and Opportunities for Change in Food Marketing to Children and Youth; Workshop Summary, Standing Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention, Institute of Medicine, May 14, 2013.
Environmental Working Group. Children’s Cereals: Sugar by the Pound [Accessed online September 3, 2014]
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