Children are seeing fewer sugary, fatty foods advertised on TV, but unhealthy fare still makes up the bulk of food commercials they see, a new study suggests.
What's more, researchers found, children were actually seeing more fast-food commercials in 2009 compared with six years earlier.
The study, reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was aimed at gauging the effects of a voluntary food industry program called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).
The initiative began in 2006, in response to calls from the Federal Trade Commission and the Institute of Medicine for greater self-regulation of food advertising to children.
It now includes 17 companies—including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Kellogg—that have pledged to improve the nutritional content of the ads they run during programs geared mainly for kids younger than 12.
The current study looked not only at ads aired during children's programs, but all commercials seen by the under-12 set (based on Nielsen ratings data).
It found that by 2009, children were seeing fewer high-fat, high-sugar or high-sodium foods in TV ads, compared with what they were seeing in 2003.
Still, the bulk of 2009 ads—86 percent—were for fatty, sugary or salty products, according to the researchers, down from 94 percent in 2003.
In addition, fast-food commercials were actually more pervasive in 2009. Children ages 6 to 12 saw about a third more of those ads than in 2003.
"Overall, fewer of these (unhealthy) products were being advertised, which is good news," said Lisa M. Powell, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who led the study.
"On the other hand," she told Reuters Health, "we saw a large increase in the number of fast-food ads."
According to Powell, the results raise questions about the extent to which self-regulation of ads during children's programing can "change the landscape" of food marketing to kids.
Lee Peeler, a spokesperson for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which runs the CFBAI, said the study "shows a lot of progress has been made."
But he took issue with the fact that the study looked at all ads seen by children, rather than ads aired during children's programing—which are the focus of the CFBAI.
"They didn't use the right measure of industry self-regulation," Peeler said in an interview.
As far as the finding on fast-food ads, Peeler noted that the researchers looked only at the number of ads, and not the content.
He said the two fast-food giants that are members of the CFBAI—Burger King and McDonald's—have made improvements to their kids' meals (and the ads for them), like offering apple slices and low-fat milk instead of french fries and soda.
A dietitian with the National Restaurant Association made the same point and defended the industry's progress on the nutrition front. "Restaurants continue to innovate and provide more healthful menu options for children and adults alike," Joy Dubost told Reuters Health in a written statement.
Despite her team's findings, Powell was not arguing for government to step in.
She pointed out that the CFBAI has made some recent changes that could be for the better.
Last month, the program announced that it had developed uniform nutrition criteria, based on U.S. dietary guidelines, for foods that can be advertised to children. As it stands, individual companies have been able to create their own standards.
The uniform criteria will go into effect in 2014. They include standards like limiting advertised children's cereals to 10 grams of sugar per serving—down from the 12 grams companies are generally holding themselves to now.
"We may well see some improvements (in ads) in the future," Powell said. "Time will tell. We'll have to keep monitoring this."
Peeler argued that the evolving CFBAI policies are evidence that self-regulation works. "Self-regulation moves forward more quickly and is more flexible than government regulation," he said.
Not everyone agrees. In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called for a ban on fast-food ads during children's programs, saying voluntary guidelines for industry are not enough.
The extent to which advertising is to blame for childhood obesity is controversial. But there is evidence that the commercials themselves may affect kids' hunger for junk food; one recent study found kids watching cartoons downed 45 percent more snacks when they were exposed to food ads instead of ads for other products.
Powell said that parents should be aware that sugary, fatty, salty treats are still heavily featured in TV ads. "And that makes their job that much tougher," she noted.
To help limit kids' exposure to ads—and to get them off the couch—the AAP recommends that parents allow no more than two hours of "screen time" per day. That means both TV and computer time.