Childhood obesity is a pressing issue in the United States, threatening the health of children and adolescents. The prevalence of obesity among this age group remains alarmingly high (source: Childhood Obesity Facts | Overweight & Obesity | CDC), making it imperative to address the factors contributing to this problem. One significant concern is the marketing practices of food and beverage companies, which often influence children’s preferences for unhealthy products. In response to these concerns, several companies have joined forces to self-regulate advertisements targeted at children. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), launched in 2006 in the US, stands as one such self-regulatory organization. The CFBAI continuously updates a list of food and beverage products that meet specific nutrition standards. In 2020, 20 US companies committed to advertising only products from the CFBAI-list in child-directed media or refraining from advertising in child-directed media altogether. Furthermore, most of these companies pledged not to advertise any products in media primarily targeting children under 6 years old.

In response to new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), a new revision in 2020 was introduced, specifying per-serving limits for energy, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar for individual food and drink categories, and requiring a specified amount of nutrient components to encourage, including fruit, vegetables, dairy, and/or whole grain, or fortification.

To assess the impact of these new rules introduced by CFBAI in 2020, this study analyzed nutrition data from 2017 and 2020, as well as Nielsen syndicated market research data, which quantifies advertising spending and the average number of food and beverage advertisements viewed by different age categories on children’s TV channels in 2021.

The study findings indicate that between 2017 and 2020, improvements were observed in the nutrient content of some categories CFBAI-listed products, with for example notable reductions in energy content only for yogurts and sweet and savory snacks. However, the nutrient content of CFBAI-listed products featured in children’s TV advertisements was significantly lower than that of non-advertised products. For instance, among beverage categories, unsweetened waters constituted 60% of CFBAI-listed products but accounted for less than 0.1% of advertisements on children’s TV channels. Conversely, sweetened beverages represented 16% of CFBAI-listed beverage products but constituted 77% of beverage ads viewed.

Despite CFBAI’s claims that its nutrition criteria were revised to align with the 2015–2020 DGAs, the authors identified several criteria that did not align. For instance, more than a quarter of CFBAI-listed products exceeded the recommended sodium/energy ratio for an 8-year-old child as per the DGAs. Additionally, the acceptable added sugar quantities set by CFBAI for cereals and sweet snacks were higher than the limits set by non-industry entities for foods intended to be advertised to children, such as the WHO Regional Office for Europe nutrient profile model. Added sugar is a particular concern, given that only 35% of U.S. children adhere to the recommended limit on added sugars (<10% of daily calories), and, on average, children consume 14% of their total energy from added sugars.

The primary assertion of this study is that despite CFBAI companies introducing some healthier options to their list of products eligible for advertising in child-directed media, they continue to permit advertising of food and beverages high in fat, sugar, or sodium. The authors highlight a significant limitation of the CFBAI initiative: allowing profit-driven companies to establish their nutrition standards is unlikely to bring about meaningful improvements in children’s diets. Furthermore, the study raises questions about these companies’ genuine commitment to promoting healthier dietary choices for children. In line with WHO recommendations, the authors advocate for government intervention in the form of strong mandatory policies, legislation, or laws to shield children from the influential marketing of unhealthy food and beverages, which poses a threat to their health and well-being.

We at Lifency are advocating for a more responsible approach to children-targeted advertising. We believe that well-being and health should always take precedence in the marketing landscape.

Jensen, M., Fleming‐Milici, F., & Harris, J. L. (2023). Are U.S. food and beverage companies now advertising healthy products to children on television ? An Evaluation of Improvements in Industry Self-regulation, 2017–2021. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 20(1).