August 1, 2008
By Crystal Nguyen, M. A.
Walking down the cereal aisle, I caught myself running towards an orange and blue colored box of cereal bars that featured a musical pop star on the package. The cereal bars had edible magenta colored music notes on it and I could get free bonus stickers. It may seem silly and strange for a 25-year-old female to jump for joy over a box, but that was when I realized that the marketing team did their job. They got me!
Since this food item was in the cereal aisle, it must mean that it is good for me, right? It has been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and the front of the box declared “good source of fiber” in bold letters. Yes, fiber that good nutrient we need in our bodies for digestion. Then my brain switched over into health educator mode and my conscience yelled at me, “It’s just good advertising, put it back on the shelf!”
Now, imagine you are grocery shopping with your child and (s)he reacts to the flashy packaging of the product. How do you respond? Would you buy it before reading the nutrition label? Or would unit price or total cost be your first thought? Or, would you buy it in response to your child’s urging? Before you decide, it is important to remember that besides being a parent, you are also a consumer and companies are very interested in the choices that you make. Corporations spend an estimated $60 billion a year to market food specifically to children, while the federal government budgets less than 1% of that to fight obesity annually.
The main outlet for this kind of marketing is television programming. A recent study conducted in 2007 focused on food advertisements shown during Saturday morning programming from 7 to 10:30 a.m. Of the 907 food commercials, 72% were for foods high in fats, oils and sugar. Of the 17% of advertisements for fast foods, only 2% could be considered healthy foods. Lastly, cereal commercials accounted for 44% of all food advertisements seen on television. It seems corporations agree with the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day!
So, if you find your child in the cereal aisle asking for a sugary sweetened box, I recommend that you look past the front of the package and take time to read the nutrition label. As a rule of thumb, 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. The more grams of sugar, the more calories it provides with very little to no vitamins or minerals. Try finding cereals that are fortified or have vitamins and minerals added. Whole-grain cereals usually have more fiber compared to others, but look on the label to see if it has at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving. Be a smart shopper or try leaving the kids at home.
Crystal L. Nguyen, M.A. is a Health Educator with UCSD Nutrition Link, an elementary school nutrition education program. Nutrition Link is funded by USDA’s Food Stamp Program through the California Department of Public Health. These institutions are equal opportunity providers and employers.