Study: Slow Progress In Kids' Cereal Marketing

KidsCerealWhile cereal makers have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed to children, they have also increased marketing for many of their least nutritious products, according to a new Cereal FACTS report from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Between 2008 and 2011, total media spending on marketing cereals targeted to kids increased by 34%, according to the report, which quantifies the category’s changes in nutrition and marketing since major makers including General Mills, Kellogg and Post pledged to reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children via the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), launched in 2006 and led by the Council of Better Business Bureaus in cooperation with the industry.



“Children still get one spoonful of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal,” said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “These products are not nutritious options that children should consume every day.” 

The new report’s co-authors issued even more critical statements. 

“While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults,” said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center. “They have 56% more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50% more sodium. The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren't loaded with sugar and salt. Why can't they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?”

“It is obvious that industry regulating itself is a failure,” contended Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center. “If there is to be any hope of protecting children from predatory marketing, either public outcry or government action will be necessary to force the companies to change.” 

The Rudd Center’s first Cereal FACTS report, in 2009, found that the least healthy breakfast cereals were those most frequently and aggressively marketed directly to children as young as age two.  

The new study used the same methods as the first to examine the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal marketed to children, families and adults, and the scope of industry advertising on television, the Internet and social media sites. Researchers measured youths’ exposure to TV and Internet advertising from all cereal companies by using syndicated data from Nielsen and comScore, Inc. and independent analyses. 

According to the report, key developments since the last study include:

Improvements in nutrition, marketing practices

* Overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children. Of the 22 different varieties of these cereals available in both 2008 and 2011, 45% had less sodium, 32% had less sugar and 23% had more fiber. General Mills improved the nutritional quality of all of its child-targeted brands.

* and, the two most-visited children’s advergame sites, were discontinued. Due to the elimination of, General Mills decreased banner advertising on children’s Web sites by 43%.

* Children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.

Changes “for the worse”

* Children viewed more TV ads for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese’s Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles.

* Post launched a new Pebbles advergame Web site, and General Mills launched new Web sites for Honey Nut Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Kellogg nearly doubled banner advertising on children’s sites, such as and, for its child-targeted brands, and introduced the first food-company kid-targeted advergame for mobile phones and tablets (for Apple Jacks). General Mills also increased banner advertising for four child-targeted brands, including Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

* Companies increased advertising to Hispanic youth.Spending on Spanish-language TV advertising for all cereals more than doubled, and Hispanic children’s exposure to these ads tripled. Cereal companies launched new Spanish-language TV campaigns for seven brands, including Froot Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

The study was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation. The full report and a summary are available at

CFBAI’s Response 

Elaine Kolish, director of CFBAI and VP of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, issued a response saying that CFBAI is “pleased that the Rudd Center has acknowledged the important nutritional improvements” that the CFBAI participants have made in kids’ cereals since 2009.” While there is more to be done, as parents know, changing kids’ taste preferences takes time and effort,” she stated.  

Kolish stressed that prior to CFBAI’s founding, some cereals had 15 or 16 grams of sugar; now most have no more than 10 grams per serving, and none have more than 12 grams. 

“Comparing cereals to cookies because of their sugar content, as the Rudd Center does, is silly,” she said. “Sugar content needs to be evaluated in context, and children’s cereals should be compared to other breakfast options. While cookies can have a place in a healthy diet as a treat eaten in moderation, the consumption of breakfast cereals is linked to healthier body weights and more nutritionally complete diets.

“Compared to cookies, the cereals advertised to children have fewer calories and considerably less fat,” she continued. “Unlike cookies, they all contain a rich array of vitamins and minerals and many have at least 8 grams of whole grains.Even compared to other likely breakfast options such as muffins, donuts, and pancakes and waffles served with syrup, these cereals have fewer calories, less sugar, less fat and less sodium.”

She also said that the five brands the Rudd Center identifies as representing about half of the ads kids see are actually examples of products “rich in whole grains and low in nutrients-to-limit,” and provided a summary of their nutrients. 

Furthermore, Kolish said that many CFBAI participants’ cereals have nutritionally improved this year (the Rudd study goes through 2011), and CFBAI’s adoption of new uniform nutrition criteria, going into effect in December 2013, will lead to further improvements.

A PDF of BBB’s June 2012 summary of the CFBAI initiative’s progress can be downloaded here

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