Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?

Institute of Medicine

Public Briefing
Dec. 6, 2005

Opening Statement

J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., M.P.P.
Senior Scholar, Institute of Medicine, and
Chair, Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth

Good morning. Before getting to the general questions that you no doubt have about the report we are releasing today on food marketing and the diets and health of children and youth, I would like to provide a brief overview of the study, the committee's findings, and the report's recommendations.

Against the backdrop of pressing public concern over the rapid and widespread increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity, Congress, through the FY2004 Health, Labor, and Education Committee appropriation, directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to undertake a study of the role that marketing of food and beverages may play in determining the nutrition of children and youth, and how marketing approaches might be marshaled to remedy poor nutrition and diets. The CDC turned to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies, which put out a report last year on preventing childhood obesity, and the IOM formed the Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth to conduct this study.

On behalf of the entire committee, we are pleased today to present this report, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? A word about the committee itself is in order. Befitting the breadth of the topic, this was a committee of unusually varied expertise, experience, and perspective. The 16 members brought to the committee expertise not only in child and adolescent development, public health, and nutrition, but also in food production, marketing, children's television, causal reasoning; constitutional law; and business ethics.

This report represents the most comprehensive review ever undertaken of the scientific literature on the influence of marketing on the diets of children. In conducting our study, the committee developed and applied a rigorous analytic framework to the systematic review of the relevant scientific literature. Indeed, the approach the committee took to the painstaking scrutiny of each research report is itself a contribution to advancing the state of the science. We also undertook an extensive review of the nutritional status of and trends for children and youth, what is known about the full range of factors that influence the dietary patterns of this population, the broad and evolving food and beverage marketing environment, and policy measures that could improve the nutrition of young people.

What did we find? Several things are worth highlighting. First, there is strong evidence that television advertising of foods and beverages has a direct influence on what children choose to eat. Second, the dominant focus of food and beverage marketing to children and youth is for products high in calories and low in nutrients, and this is sharply out of balance with healthful diets. Third, marketing approaches have become multifacted and sophisticated, moving far beyond television advertising to include the Internet, advergames, strategic product placement, and much more. Fourth, turning around the current trends in children's diets and in marketing will require strong and active leadership and cooperation, from both the public and private sectors. Industry resources and creativity must be harnessed on behalf of healthier diets for children.

Although we had limited access to proprietary marketing research, which might have shed additional light on some of the research and marketing patterns and strategies for child- and youth-oriented foods and beverages, the committee assessed the marketing environment in some detail. Our original analysis of new foods and beverages launched in the past decade confirmed that new offerings targeted specifically at young people were introduced at a substantially faster rate than products aimed at other age groups. A graphic in your packet displays the comparison. This reflects to some extent the growing purchasing power of children and youth, now more than $200 billion annually. The top four items that children ages 8 to 12 say they can buy without parental permission are high calorie and low nutrient foods and beverages.

While the food, beverage, and restaurant industries devote far too much of their marketing to high-calorie products that contain excessive amounts of fat, salt, and added sugars, and that lack key nutrients, it is also important to point out that some companies and restaurants have recently taken constructive steps to develop and promote healthier choices for children. One thing is clear: the turnaround required is so substantial, and the issues are so complex, that the full involvement and leadership of the food and beverage industry is essential. And it is our hope that this initiative will be enthusiastic, active, and effective.

The committee identifies a number of ways in which food, beverage, and restaurant companies, food retailers, and advertising and marketing firms can and should shift their child- and youth-oriented product development and marketing. We also suggest ways they can and should work with government, scientific, and public health groups to develop and enforce marketing standards for healthful foods, for marketing of products, and for a sustained public-private cooperative social marketing effort aimed at achieving better diets among our children. The committee concurred with the recommendation of the IOM's report on preventing childhood obesity that the government and schools should develop and apply nutritional standards for all foods and beverages sold in the school environment that compete with federally reimbursed meals, including products sold in school stores and vending machines or for fundraising.

The government has an important role on many fronts, and should consider using a variety of incentives to encourage and reward companies that develop and promote healthier products for young people. However, if the industries' voluntary efforts fail to shift the emphasis of television advertising to healthier products aimed at children, then the committee recommends that Congress pursue legislation that would mandate changes in both broadcast and cable television. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should designate an agency to monitor the nation's progress in promoting more healthful diets and report to Congress within two years on the progress made and needed actions.

That concludes my statement. My colleagues on the committee and I would be happy to answer your questions. Please come to one of the microphones to ask your question or use the e-mail link on the National Academies Web site. Be sure to first identify yourself by name and affiliation. Thank you.