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Junk food ads disproportionately target black and Hispanic kids: report

(Reuters Health) – Television advertising in the U.S. for candy, fast food, sugary drinks and other unhealthy treats continues to target mostly black and Hispanic youth, according to a new report that suggests this contributes to health disparities.

Overall spending on TV ads by restaurant, food and drink companies declined from $11.4 billion in 2013 to $10.9 billion in 2017, the report found. Even though TV viewing by children and teens also declined during this period, young people in the U.S. continued to view approximately 10 food-related TV ads per day in 2017.

And spending on ads aimed at black children and teens surged 53 percent to $333 million by the final year of the study. Black children saw an average of 16.4 ads a day in 2017, and black teens typically saw 17.1 ads each day.

Hispanic youth, meanwhile, viewed two more ads per day on Spanish-language TV in 2017 than they did at the beginning of the study, in addition to seeing ads in English.

“Food companies almost exclusively advertise junk food – especially fast food, candy, sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks – and these products are disproportionately advertised to black and Hispanic youth,” said lead report author Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut in Hartford.

This contributes to health disparities like a greater long-term risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among children of color in the U.S. in large part because kids have a hard time resisting junk food they see advertised on TV, Harris said.

“It’s a common misperception that you can teach kids to defend against the effects of advertising for unhealthy foods,” Harris said by email.

“In our discussions with kids, they know these products are unhealthy and they know fruits and vegetables would be a better snack,” she added. “But teenagers are not developmentally mature enough to resist short-term rewards (e.g., candy, chips, fast food, sugary snacks) in the interest of long-term benefits, like good health in 20 years.”

The report analyzed advertising by 32 major restaurant, food and beverage companies that spent at least $100 million on food advertising to children and teens in 2017.

That year, spending on ads for healthy products like water, nuts, fruits and 100 percent fruit juice totaled only $195 million, or about 3 percent of spending. Companies devoted only 1 percent of ad spending on black-targeted TV to healthy products, and didn’t promote these items at all on Spanish-language TV.

Black children and teens viewed 70 percent more food ads than white youth in 2013, and they saw 86 more ads than white children and teens by 2017.

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether advertising directly impacted children’s health or eating habits.

But constant exposure to ads for unhealthy foods and drinks can shape children’s norms and expectations about what foods are okay to eat on regular basis, said Jennifer Emond, a researcher at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Unfortunately, the foods and drinks most heavily targeted to children of color are high in sugar, salt and/or fat like sugary drinks, candy and fast food,” Emond said by email. “And these foods should not be consumed on a regular basis.”

To help blunt the effect of these promotions, parents should speak to kids about tricks the ads might use to convince kids to crave unhealthy foods and drinks, and also discuss healthy eating habits, said Dr. Megan Pesch, of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

“It’s important that children learn which foods can help their bodies grow strong and stay healthy, while not making junk foods seem like forbidden fruit,” Pesch, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

SOURCE: Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, online January 15, 2019.

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