The beauty of marketing is in the spin. If a food product can’t provide nutrition, it can offer taste. If it can’t offer taste, it can offer cost. And if it can’t offer any of the three, there’s a good chance its commercials feature a familiar character to push feelings of happiness or warmth.

Now, a new study has found that nearly 100 percent of food or beverage ads featured products that contained large numbers of nutrients to limit (NTL) — junk, basically — despite the fact that some 16 companies have agreed to self-regulate such marketing tactics as part of the Better Business Bureau’s 2007 effort, called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Given the dearth of healthful food commercials, experts fear the current childhood obesity epidemic will only continue to fatten.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago sought to investigate the prevalence of unhealthy ingredients in the foods normally advertised on children’s programming, as childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled among adolescents in the last 30 years. The researchers point to popular culture and forms of mass media as weighing heavily on children’s diets. Indeed, lax parenting approaches and the constant drilling of sugary breakfast cereals and fast food may cement a child’s diet more than any other factor.

The team found that 84 percent of food and beverage ads seen by children, ages 2-11, on all programming were high in fats, trans fats, sugar, and sodium. That percentage rose to more than 95 percent for ads during children’s programming. Among the companies participating in the CFBAI, 98 percent of ads seen on children’s programming featured products high in NTL. Lead author of the study and professor of health policy and administration in the UIC School of Public Health, Dr. Lisa Powell, said that much of advertising directed at kids is not regulated by the broadcasting companies.

“We found that less than half of children’s exposure to ads for food and beverage products comes from children’s programming, meaning that a significant portion of exposure is not subject to self-regulation,” Powell said in a statement.

But even among the CFBAI participants, who claim to market only healthy foods, what constitutes “healthy” still remains controversial. Kellogg’s, for example, maintains that Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes stick to the company’s guidelines, despite both cereals containing large quantities of sugar. And Burger King and McDonald’s, which are perennially derided as two of country's biggest promoters of unhealthy food, defend their ads by pointing to healthier side options, such as apples instead of fries, in their commercials.

“The self-regulatory effort has been ineffective so far,” Powell stated in the release.

The CFBAI has proposed a more rigid set of guidelines for its participating members to follow beginning Dec. 31, ones that are intended to eliminate the ambiguity of the current health standards. The updated initiative will tighten caloric limits and allowable NTL, prohibit “reduced” claims (e.g. 25 percent less sodium), and prevent eligibility solely based on portion-controlled packaging. Along with these measures, the CFBAI will begin encouraging certain food groups, such as fruits and vegetables.

“Overall, the new criteria impose significant challenges on the participants, and require recipe changes if the participants wish to continue advertising certain foods to children after these criteria go into effect,” the proposal states. “As a result, the new criteria will bring about even more improvements in foods advertised to children.”

Source: Powell L, Schermbeck R, Chaloupka F. Nutritional Content of Food and Beverage Products in Television Advertisements Seen on Children's Programming. Child Obesity. 2013.