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Kids getting a steady diet of fast food on the tube

Released: Thursday, April 25, 2002

HONOLULU, April 24 - Television commercials aired during children's shows now emphasize larger fast-food portions compared with Saturday morning ads in the 1970s, which focused mainly on sugary breakfast cereals, according to a study being presented at the American Heart Association's Asia Pacific Scientific Forum. Researchers say this trend may contribute to the rise in childhood obesity.

Physical inactivity during leisure activities, including television viewing, has been implicated as a contributor to the prevalence of obesity in children and risk for heart disease later in life.

"This study cannot confirm an association between the products advertised and the health status of children and teens," says Marlene M. Most, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of research, Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. "However, our findings suggest that if young people were to consume many of the products being advertised to them, and also had a decrease in physical activity, this could contribute to obesity and heart disease."

In 1976, most of the commercials directed at young people on Saturday mornings were for breakfast cereal (43 percent of total commercials). The next largest category was candy commercials followed by advertisements for fast-food restaurants, says Most.

"Although breakfast cereal commercials remain popular during Saturday morning programming, we noticed a real surge in commercials for fast-food restaurants over the past 25 years," she says.

Not only has the number of fast-food commercials increased, the type of commercials has changed over the years as well, Most says. In 1976, most fast-food restaurants emphasized the food itself, with lots of pictures of hamburgers, french fries and soft drinks. In 1992, however, the emphasis changed to the "fun" atmosphere of fast-food restaurants. Then in 2001, the focus shifted again to emphasize the value of larger "kid-sized" portions now available. "As a dietitian, it's disturbing to see even larger food portions being directed at young people, since most Americans already eat portions way beyond what is heart-healthy," she says.

Most and her colleague, John W. Windhauser, Ph.D., Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, also in Baton Rouge, studied commercials aired during Saturday morning children's television in 1976, 1984, 1992 and 2001. For each year they analyzed the commercials aired during a three-hour time block on Saturday mornings over a 10-week period.

Nutritional information for the food products being advertised was obtained from product labels as well as from USDA and Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals databases. The food products being advertised to children were analyzed for major nutrients as well as fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium content.

"Back in the 1970s, TV commercials directed at children were being criticized for emphasizing high-sugar foods, such as some breakfast cereals, but no one had really studied this to see what was actually happening," Most says. "We looked at almost 3,000 commercials aimed at children and teens and really got a good idea of not only what was being advertised, but how commercials aired during children's programming had changed over the past 25 years."

For 1976, 1984 and 1992, only commercials shown during Saturday morning kid's programming on the big three U.S. networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - were analyzed. The Fox network was added in 2001.

Another trend in commercials aimed at children is that candy commercials, which had been the second most frequent type of advertising in 1976, accounted for less than 10 percent of overall advertising during children's programming in 2001. Most says there seems to be more advertising of fruit drinks and fruit products today, but most of them are as high in sugar as candy products advertised in the 1970s.

"With this study we felt it was important to continue the examination of messaging to young people who are at an impressionable age in making food choices. Many of these patterns in food choices may continue for many years, influencing an individual's health outlook for years to come," she says.

This press release was produced and distributed by the American Heart Association

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.