NEW YORK - Children in the United States are seeing fewer sugary, fatty foods advertised on TV, but unhealthy fare still accounts for most of the food ads they see - and fast food commercials were more numerous in 2009 than six years before, a study said.
The US food industry in 2006 began a voluntary program called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in response to calls from the Federal Trade Commission and the Institute of Medicine for greater self-regulation of food advertising to children.
The study, reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, assessed the impact of the program, which 17 companies - including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Kellogg - have joined, pledging to improve the nutritional content of the ads they run during programs geared mainly for children under 12.
"Overall, fewer of these (unhealthy) products were being advertised, which is good news," said Lisa Powell, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led the study.
"On the other hand, we saw a large increase in the number of fast-food ads."
The extent to which advertising is to blame for childhood obesity is controversial, but there is evidence that commercials may affect children's hunger for junk food.
One recent study found that children watching cartoons consumed 45 per cent more snacks when they were exposed to food ads.
The study looked not only at ads aired during children's programs, but all commercials seen by the under-12 set, based on Nielsen ratings data.
By 2009, children were seeing fewer high-fat, high-sugar or high-sodium foods in TV ads, compared with 2003.
But the bulk of 2009 ads, at 86 per cent, were for fatty, sugary or salty products - down from 94 per cent in 2003.
Children also saw roughly one third more fast-food commercials in 2009.
Powell said the results raise questions about the extent to which self-regulation of ads during children's programming can"change the landscape" of food marketing to children.
Lee Peeler, a spokesperson for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which runs the CFBAI, said the study shows that progress has been made.
But he took issue with the fact that the study looked at all ads seen by children, rather than ads aired during children's programming, which are the focus of the CFBAI initiative. "They didn't use the right measure of industry self-regulation," he added.
He also said that researchers only looked at the number of fast-food ads and not the content, noting that two giants of the industry - Burger King and McDonald's, both of which are CFBAI members - have improved their children's meals and the ads for them, offering things such as apple slices and low-fat milk instead of French fries and soda.
Powell said that the CFBAI has made some recent changes that could be for the better, such as announcing that it had developed uniform nutrition criteria, based on US dietary guidelines, for foods that can be advertised to children.
The uniform criteria will go into effect in 2014 and include standards such as limiting advertised children's cereals to 10 grams of sugar per serving, down from the 12 grams companies are holding themselves to now.
Currently, companies are able to create their own standards. "We may well see some improvements in the future," Powell said, noting that parents need to be aware that junk foods still feature heavily in TV ads.
"Time will tell. We'll have to keep monitoring this."