Cereals get healthier, but with a gotcha

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 22, 2012 - 4:27 PM

Study says marketers are increasing ads directed at children that tout companies' least-nutritious offerings.

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General Mills' Apple Cinnamon Cheerios

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General Mills Inc. and other cerealmakers have improved the nutritional quality of the cereals they market to children, but they also have increased kid-oriented advertising for many of their least-nutritious products, according to a Yale University report scheduled for release Friday.

By cutting sugar and salt, and boosting fiber, cerealmakers improved the nutrition profile of 13 of 16 "child-targeted brands" between 2008 and 2011, according to the study by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. General Mills improved the quality of all of its kids' brands, the study said.

General Mills, based in Golden Valley, said in a statement that it has not yet seen the Yale report but that it's "leading the way" in cutting sugar. Since 2007, it's reduced the sweet stuff on average by 14 percent in its kids' cereals. General Mills and Michigan-based Kellogg Co. are the cereal industry's heavyweights, together capturing over 60 percent of the U.S. cold-cereal market.

Cereal garners a particularly large share of advertising dollars focused on child audiences. And marketing to kids has long been a heavily debated issue, one that has gotten more contentious in recent years as regulators and health watchdogs have tried to restrict it.

Children viewed more TV ads for seven of the least-nutritious kid-targeted brands in 2011 compared to 2008. That includes significantly more ads for General Mills' Reese's Puffs and Trix, Kellogg's Froot Loops and Post's Pebbles.

Banner advertising on children's websites for less-nutritious brands also increased significantly, while General Mills and Post launched new "advergame" websites for kids. But the study noted that General Mills and Post also respectively discontinued Millsberry.com and Postopia.com, the two most popular advergame sites.

Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center, said he credits cerealmakers for making "small but positive changes" in nutrition. But with the increase in ads for the least-nutritious cereals, "it's a pretty discouraging picture," calling into question whether the industry can police itself, he said.

The industry has been trying to do just that since 2006 with its Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Last year, four federal agencies together came out with voluntary guidelines for child marketing that are more stringent than the industry's initiative.

The government guidelines, which are strongly opposed by packaged-food makers, are on hold while the agencies do a cost-benefit analysis of their effects.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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