By Jacquellena Carrero
Latinos have some of the highest rates of obesity in the nation, and the results of a new study show that advertisers may be contributing to the problem.
A new study out by the Journal of Health Communication is showing that the vast majority of food advertisements on Spanish language television shows are unhealthy. According to the study, more than 84 percent of all foods and beverages advertised are low-nutrient and high-calorie products. The study, which was called “Food Marketing to Children on US. Spanish-Language Television” is among the first that analyzes food and beverage advertising on Spanish-language children’s television. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program.
Dale Kunkel, Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona at Tucson and the lead author of the study, said that researchers used an independent food rating system by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to designate foods as healthy or unhealthy. The foods on the HHS scale range from “go” foods that are low in fat and calories to “slow” foods that should be eaten sometimes to “whoa” foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories, and low in nutrition.
“The large majority of ads were in this whoa category,” Kunkel says. “It’s still outrageously high on English channels, but we concede that food marketing on Spanish channels is especially problematic.”
More than three-quarters or 78 percent of all Spanish language food ads used popular cartoon characters to market foods that fell in the “whoa” category. That number dropped for children’s shows in English to 49 percent. Researchers also found that fast food commercials dominated all food advertising, taking up nearly half of all child-targeted food ads on Spanish language TV. Healthy food on the other hand, such as fruits and vegetables, were so rare that they accounted for just 1 percent or fewer of all advertisements in either language.
Childhood obesity is a huge problem and what Kunkel calls the number one threat to the nation’s public health. He says that while the reasons for childhood obesity vary, exposure remains a top factor.
“There are lots of factors such as not eating meals with your family, not exercising as much. But we know that children’s exposure is a big contributor to childhood obesity,” he explains.
According to Kunkel, the results are especially significant for Latino children, who spend an average of five hours a day watching television and have disproportionately high rates of obesity. In 2007–2008, 41.7 percent of Mexican American children ages 6 to 11 were obese or overweight compared with 34.5 percent of white children the same age.
However, Kunkel believes the study also demonstrates that there are shortfalls with voluntary self-regulation. Television marketing leaders have recognized the need to reform food advertisements targeting kids. Major U.S. food manufacturers pledged in 2006 to advertise healthier food choices for children under age 12 as part of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. But Kunkel says that the study shows that self-regulation hasn’t quite worked out.
“The program of industry self-regulation is defective,” he says. “The reason companies self-regulate is to avoid government regulation, but we know we need to do better.”