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Juliet Sims's picture

Every year, without fail, on talk shows, in magazines, and even among friends and family, the holidays provide fodder for the same lament: how are we to be healthy during a season that holds eating – particularly foods high in calories and sugar – at its core? And every year as I hear this common refrain, I puzzle over the discussion, because it wholly misses one of the largest contributors to poor nutrition year-round: junk food marketing to children and families.

As a health advocate, I grapple with the numbers every day. The food and beverage industry spends upwards of $2 billion marketing to kids every year – with access to children in schools, in stores, on television, and increasingly on the internet.

Children watch an average of over ten food-related ads every day – that’s almost 4,000 ads per year -- nearly all of them for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. And with leading food and beverage companies having seen double- and, in some cases, triple-digit growth in digital marketing budgets in recent years –reaching $31 billion in 2011 -- online advertising spending shows no sign of slowing.

Food and beverage companies often say that it’s up to parents to decide what to feed their kids. But that argument doesn’t explain why companies go to such great lengths to reach our children. Companies spend billions marketing to kids for one reason: it works.

Food and beverage marketing has a direct influence on kids’ diets and health prospects. One study found that when children were exposed to television content with food advertising, they consumed 45 percent more food than children exposed to content with non-food adverting. Another found that kids ate 56 percent more unhealthy snacks when playing digital games advertising junk food than games promoting healthy eating, and 16 percent more junk food than those playing control games.

As the link between junk food marketing and child health becomes ever clearer, advocates and families are increasingly pushing for smart policies that support parents in their efforts to raise healthy kids. But with intensive lobbying by the biggest players in the food and beverage industry, recent landmark efforts like the federally proposed voluntary nutrition guidelines for foods marketed directly to children – evidence-based nutrition standards that companies could have adopted on a voluntary basis – have been derailed. Just last month, two California city ballot measures proposing a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, in part to fund child health programs, were defeated after industry poured nearly $4 million into opposition efforts.

As a mother, industry’s opposition to policies that protect children and families makes me furious. As an advocate, however, I realize that something significant – and positive -- is happening with each of these setbacks. With each public discussion of policy proposals to limit junk food marketing, more parents, more families, and more people who care deeply about the health and well-being of children in this country come to understand the critical role that junk food marketing plays in causing poor nutrition and chronic disease. With each debate, we build a stronger base of advocates who believe that the food and beverage industry can and should do better by our kids.

With the holidays soon drawing 2012 to a close, the coming year holds plenty of opportunities to push for healthy food policy: the long-awaited release of USDA proposed nutrition standards for competitive foods sold in schools, the potential for much-needed updates to food labeling regulations, and continued local policy initiatives to limit unhealthy foods and beverages -- to name a few. To be sure, there will be setbacks, but with every debate, the momentum for policies that protect children against junk food marketing grows ever stronger.

For more information about the deceptive lengths that food industries will go to in order to promote unhealthy foods to kids -- from packaging that misleads parents to ads that target kids to behind-the-scenes lobbying to thwart any oversight -- watch Prevention Institute’s We’re Not Buying It


This post is part of the MomsRising Healthy Holiday Food Blog Carnival.

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