Tag Archives: food marketing

San Francisco Bans Happy Meal Toys

Happy meal new year

Image by noodlepie via Flickr

The post below is from our friends at NaturalNews.com. It’s a good site to get health information without the slant of the pharmaceutical industry or its partner mainstream medicine.

NaturalNews Post

San Francisco has become the first U.S. city to crack down on the dubious practice of fast food companies luring children into eating unhealthy meals by giving away gimmicky toys. “Our children are sick. Rates of obesity in San Francisco are disturbingly high, especially among children of color,” said San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, the sponsor of the measure, in a press conference.

The new law, which goes into effect December, 2011, would only allow toys to be given away with “healthy” children’s meals. That’s defined as a meal under 600 calories that includes fruits and vegetables but not a beverage with excess sugar (such as a soda). McDonald’s Happy Meals obviously do not fit this definition of a healthy meal.

According to a Reuters report, McDonald’s spent over half a billion dollars advertising and giving away toys in 2006. This is obviously money spent with a purpose — and the purpose is to keep children begging for more Happy Meals so they can get their hands on more toys. Across the industry, promotional spending on children’s toys to promote junk food tops $1.6 billion a year, reports Reuters.

That’s $1.6 billion spent in trying to persuade children to eat factory-fabricated animal products and nutritionally-depleted fast foods. Can you imagine what this must be contributing to childhood obesity? What about diabetes and heart disease later in life?

San Francisco understands that feeding junk food to your children is not a smart way to have a healthy city (or state, or nation for that matter). I actually admire the city’s willingness to start clamping down on these toy enticements. There’s a point at which local communities and cities need to send a message to corporate America: “You will NOT be allowed to harm our children any longer!”

I just wish more cities had the courage to stand up to the powerful fast food chains and say enough is enough. Yes, you can sell food. Or you can sell toys. But you can’t use toys to trick children into asking for food that we now know is strongly contributing to an epidemic of obesity and disease.

In a perfect society, of course, it would be parents who would say no to their children and stop buying Happy Meals with toys in them in the first place. But health-oriented parenting is another article altogether.


Filed under Diet, Public Health

My Trip Down the Cereal Aisle

Food marketing really is quite amazing.  They can take food that is not all that much better for you than candy and make it seem as if it’s the most wholesome product you could possibly purchase.  This is a large part of the problem in terms of the health of US citizens right now.

Unfortunately, many people don’t know about true nutrition so they rely on information they read on boxes and bags to assess what they should consume.  The problem is that they believe what they read and the marketers know that.  Their assessments are incorrect not because what they are reading is incorrect but because it is cleverly misleading.

Recently my wife and I were at the grocery store.  I told her that I wanted to take a stroll down the cereal aisle.  She knew what I wanted to do right away.  As I strolled down the cereal aisle I took pictures of several different kinds of cereal.  Some offenders are worse than others, but none of them are particularly good for you.

Cereals tout themselves as healthy in many ways.  Some say they are good for your heart.  Some claim to provide enough calcium and vitamin D for a whole day (with milk of course).  Still others tell you of their whole grain goodness.  While they may be telling the truth in those statements they are inherently misleading.  Cheerios does contain whole grain.  Other cereals do provide the recommended daily value of calcium and vitamin D.  However, that doesn’t mean they are good for you.  McDonald’s cheeseburgers might provide enough B12 to satisfy your daily need, but they aren’t health food.

Let’s have a look at these cereals together:

Cinnamon Toast Crunch

Mmmm…Cinnamon Toast crunch.  Sugary goodness.  But at the top it says whole grain and calcium guaranteed!  Consumers see this and it triggers an automatic response in their brains.  “Whole grains and calcium are good for me,” says the consumer.  But is a sugary cereal like this actually healthy?  I think not.  Let’s continue.

Reese's Puffs

This one also promises whole grains.  It doesn’t go as far as guaranteeing calcium or vitamin D but does say that it’s a “good source.”  Reese’s Puffs are nothing more than a cereal version of candy.  Marketers know that these cereals appeal to children because they taste like the candy.  Guess what?  They’re about as healthy as the candy too.

Cocoa Puffs

This too guarantees whole grains and calcium.  It also sneaks in the word ‘naturally’ on the box.  See it in the upper left corner? Forget the fact that it says ‘artificially’ there too.  Marketing geniuses know you don’t actually see that word.  All you see if the natural part.  Our brains are designed to scan for important information by reading only the first word or two to get the gist of what it says  They know that when you read that box all your brain sees is ‘naturally’ and it equates that with healthy.

Lucky Charms

Ahhh, Lucky Charms.  Using a character to get to children.  This is one of the classics.  They also make the claim about calcium and whole grains.  Most of this cereal is sugar.  I mean, it has marshmallows in it for goodness sake.

Apple Jacks

All this claims is that it is a ‘good source of fiber.’  It must be really bad for you if that’s all they could come up with.


While Cheerios are probably the least offensive on this list, they still aren’t good for you.  This one cleverly designs a heart shaped bowl to hold their cereal indicating that it’s good for the heart.  It also claims it can help lower cholesterol which certainly would be appealing to some people.  The problem is eating Cheerios alone is not enough to lower cholesterol.  You need other factors to do so.

I took a peak at the nutritional information for Cheerios as well.  I found that it contains 20g of carbohydrate but actually 26 grams are consumed if you have your cereal with milk (and who doesn’t).  Twenty-six grams of carbohydrate is equal to more than 5 teaspoons of sugar! Would you eat that for breakfast?  I hope not.  This is also per serving of cereal.  One serving is just one cup of cereal.  Not sure what that looks like?  I have a little perspective for you.

1 cup of cereal in a bowl. It's a little hard to tell just how much is in there, but it's not a lot.

For a little more perspective, this is the same cereal poured into two very small champagne flutes. It doesn't even fill both of them!

Most people do not eat just one cup of cereal.  They fill up there bowl and add some milk.  Kids and adults are likely getting twice what it says on the back of the boxes because they don’t know what a cup looks like.  It is obviously not a lot of food.  If you eat 2 cups instead of 1, it’s like consuming 10 teaspoons of sugar for breakfast.  That’s more sugar than a soda!  Disturbing isn’t it?

As healthy as the marketing people make it seem, cereal is not a health food.  It should be consumed on rare occasions, if at all.  I recommend that my patients consume nutrient dense eggs for breakfast.  They have lots of good vitamins in them, and are a good source of protein and healthy fats.

The cereals are enticing because they appear to be healthy with all the claims on the front of the boxes.  Don’t be fooled by the clever marketing.  Eating a sugary cereal truly is no better than drinking a soda or eating a candy bar for your first meal of the day.


Filed under Diet, Public Health

Solving Childhood Obesity Part IV – Food Marketing

The marketers that come up with advertising campaigns for the food industry are pure genius.  They can take a food that is completely unhealthy and spin the commercial so that it appears as if the food is as good (if not better) than any health food available.  My rant on Tostitos is a good example. (Click here to read the post.) Some excerpts and statistics from this blog were taken directly from the Let’s Move Report to the President available at www.letsmove.gov.

Honey Nut And Chocolate Cheerios are Health Foods!

I recently saw another good example.  This was a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial.  It started about by talking about cholesterol and how high levels of the stuff can be bad for you.  Then it mentions how whole grains can improve cholesterol numbers.  I have issues with that statement as well but that’s a whole different post.  The commercial continues and states that Honey Nut Cheerios is made from whole grains and in a “study” was shown to reduce cholesterol.  We are of course provided no information on this so called study, but it sounds official so it’s included in the commercial.  They also put a big read heart on the box to suggest that eating Honey Nut Cheerios is heart healthy.  At the end of the commercial they also introduce Chocolate Cheerios and it too has a big red heart on the box!  It’s heart healthy too!  The problem?  Honey Nut Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios are not heart healthy!  In fact, they are the opposite.  They are loaded with sugar and are not a good way for children to start the day.

Both Honey Nut Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios provides a child with the equivalent of more than 4 teaspoons of sugar to start the day.  That’s equal to half a soda for breakfast.  Would you let your child drink half a soda for breakfast?  Probably not.  But wait, Cheerios does provide vitamins and minerals, right?  Yes, they do but what if Coca Cola decided to fortify its soda with vitamins and minerals?  Does it make soda healthy?  Certainly not.  I have provided the nutrition information and packaging of both Cheerios below for your viewing pleasure.

As you can see, both boxes have the big red heart on them.  The marketers know that the vast majority of people that see this box with assume that means Cheerios is healthy and that’s a major problem because it’s cereals like this that are contributing to childhood obesity is a big way.

The Marketing Billions

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates
that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.  The last reason is of particular importance to marketers.  Just like the cigarette companies of the 50’s and 60’s, the food industry knows that if it can get you hooked on their products as a child, you are unlikely to change as an adult.  Habits are hard to break.

Food and beverage companies utilize a full range of marketing techniques including print, internet advertising (such as advergames), product packaging, in-school marketing, cross-promotions, prizes and contests, and the use of popular licensed characters that appeal to children and adolescents.

Marketing Works (Unfortunately)

Research conducted by the Sesame Street Workshop in 2005 found a strong influence of popular licensed characters on preschoolers’ food preferences. When preschoolers were asked if they would rather eat broccoli or a Hershey’s chocolate bar, 78% of the children chose the chocolate bar and only 22% chose broccoli. When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, however, 50% of the children chose broccoli.  This shows that children are extremely impressionable and will likely always want to eat the foods that have the marketing behind them.  Unfortunately, this is almost always foods that are nutrient empty.

Can Big Business Police Itself?

The food industry claims it is concerned with the health of children.  In 2006 the Council of Better Business Bureaus established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).  CFBAI was intended to change the ratio of food and beverage advertising messages directed to children under the age of 12 to encourage healthier eating and lifestyles. It has 16 current member companies – Burger King, Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Dannon, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestle, PepsiCo, Post Foods, and Unilever.

These companies are doing this on a voluntary basis and have set guidelines for themselves:

  1. 100% of child-directed television, print, radio, and internet advertising must promote “healthier dietary choices” or “better-for-you” products.
  2. Products depicted in child-directed interactive games must be “better-for-you” foods or the games must incorporate healthy lifestyle messages.
  3. Companies must reduce their use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not promote healthy dietary choices or healthy lifestyles.
  4. Companies must not pay for or actively seek placement of their products in entertainment directed at children.
  5. Companies must not advertise food or beverage products in elementary schools.

While these guidelines sound noble, it’s like asking the wolves to guard the sheep. A recent examination of the CFBAI has showed that it really is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to appease the public while continuing to do what they have always done.

The Federal Trade Commission’s 2008 report on the CFBAI noted that the participating companies’ nutritional standards, as well as their definitions of “child-directed,” vary by company. Within certain guidelines, each company developed its own nutritional standards for what constitutes a “better for you” food or a “healthy dietary choice.” Moreover, the FTC criticized the program for applying these standards only to certain forms of advertising.

A recent study analyzed the effectiveness of the CFBAI and found that it had not substantially shifted advertising for children toward healthier products. Using one measure of nutritional quality, the study determined that, in 2009, advertisements for healthy products accounted for a very small fraction of all advertising by participating companies, while most advertising promoted foods of low nutritional value. The study also found that companies participating in the CFBAI nearly doubled the use of licensed characters over the past four years, increasing from use in 8.8% of advertisements in 2005 to 15.2% in 2009. Roughly half of all advertisements with these characters are for foods in the lowest nutritional category.

This clearly shows that while the guidelines have been set, they are not abiding by them at all.  And why would they?  There is no actual power in this CFBAI.  It’s a voluntary group that is regulating itself.  The food industry is not going to do anything that may cost them any profit.  The sad fact is though that it is costing the youth of America their health.

The Solution

There has got to be tighter regulation on what is termed health food.  Just because it contains whole grains does not make it a health food.  Industry wide changes need to be made.  Official guidelines need to be set that categorize foods into good and bad (easier said than done, I might add) and these big companies need to be forced to adhere to them.  The consequences of not doing so need to be severe as well.

Another big part of the problem is the lack of education in the general public.  I see these ads and brush them off as ridiculous.  I can do this because I’ve had years of nutritional training.  While it does not take years to train someone how to eat and evaluate food properly, the food industry knows that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad foods.  They also know that people trust what they see on television.  If they are told that Chocolate Cheerios are heart healthy then it  must be true.

Education is the only real solution to this problem.  Children need to be taught from a young age what foods are good for you and what foods should be viewed as treats and eaten sparingly.  My advice to my patients is always the same – if it comes in a box and is processed, don’t eat it. Those are the most likely culprits to destroy your health.  Shop around the edges of the grocery store.  Skip those middle aisles with all the cookies, snacks and cereals.  Most of the cereals on the market today are no better than a box of cookies anyway.  If you do this, you’ll live a healthier and happier life.


Filed under Diet, Public Health