High rates of obesity and overweight are an obvious and growing problem among U.S. children, particularly among certain ethnic groups — the reasons for the racial disparities, however, remain unclear.

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics look at how advertising for unhealthy food and beverages could potentially affect the health of Hispanic youth.

The cultural group was targeted because in a 2010 report, the National Center for Health Statistics found that 39 percent of Hispanic youth are overweight, while only 28 percent of their non-Hispanic counterparts were overweight. Extra weight carries serious potential health risks, and further studies have since indicated that Hispanics have a greater risk than other cultural groups for developing type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic issue of the digestive system. When there is excess sugar added to the blood stream, the body stops responding to regulators of sugar. As a result, sugar builds up in the blood, instead of being broken down and used by the body. This becomes problematic, as sugar that sits in the blood for too long will deprive the body of needed energy and, worse, eventually cause serious damage to organs. Excess sugar can affect anyone who has a sugar-heavy diet, regardless of body weight. However, a predisposition towards being overweight can increase one's risk for type 2 diabetes.

Given that many Hispanics are bilingual, speaking English and Spanish interchangably, researchers measured their exposure to food- and beverage-related commercials during both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking programming. They found that there were only two food-related ads played per hour on Spanish television channels, while there were about eight food-related ads played on English programming channels. But, on the other hand, 84 percent of the food commercials on Spanish-speaking channels were for unhealthy foods, while 73 percent of the food commercials on English-speaking channels were unhealthy.

Researchers found that, across both types of programming, fast food and cereal commercials were the most prominent. Hispanic youths viewing English-speaking programming viewed about 850 fast food commercials and about 575 ads pushing breakfast cereal. On Spanish-speaking television, there were fewer ads altogether, but more of them were for unhealthy food — about 31 percent were for fast food and nine percent were for breakfast cereal.

Overall exposure to these commercials is alarming given their frequency, and Hispanic youth, who are bilingual, end up being doubly exposed in comparison to monolingual youth.

The researchers found that young children, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, generally watch a lot of television. However, Hispanic youths were found to watch 12 percent more television than their non-Hispanic peers. Similarly, Hispanic youth watch three times as much English television, and so this is likely where their exposure to these commercials comes from; there are four ads per hour on English television in comparison to three ads per hour on Spanish television.

The researchers say the lower rate of advertising on Spanish language television is promising, but does not cancel out the damage done by the excess advertising on English-language television.

In the end, more monitoring must be done to find a clear correlation between their exposure and the increased incidence of health issues.

Source: Fleming-Milici F, Harris JL, Sarda V, Schwarts MB. Amount of Hispanic Youth Exposure to Food and Beverage Advertising on Spanish- and English-Language Television. JAMA. 2013.