Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
The Rudd Center Health Digest

July 2009

Food Marketing, Childhood Obesity, and Opportunities for Change


Research suggests the average child in the United States views fifteen television food advertisements every day. Most promote products high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium.

To explore this issue, the Rudd Center’s Jennifer Harris, PhD, Director of Marketing Initiatives; Jennifer Pomeranz, JD, Director of Legal Initiatives; Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, Director; and Tim Lobstein, PhD, of the International Obesity Taskforce wrote “A Crisis in the Marketplace: How Food Marketing Contributes to Childhood Obesity and What Can Be Done.”

Published in the Annual Review of Public Health, the article highlighted major findings in research about food marketing and health in children. Some of the key points included:

  • Young people are important to food companies because they spend money, affect what adults buy, and develop brand loyalties early in life.
  • The exposure of children to food marketing is massive and begins early.
  • Nearly all food marketing to children worldwide promotes products that can adversely affect their health.
  • Marketing affects what children eat by increasing their awareness of, desire for, and intention to buy the products promoted.
  • Psychological research has identified mechanisms through which marketing influences behavior outside of the individual’s conscious awareness; these mechanisms affect adolescents and adults, as well as children.
  • Intervention studies show beneficial changes from reducing marketing exposure, supporting the need for policies that limit marketing.

The article illustrated the power of food marketing through a simple comparison of dollars spent: “…consider the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation $100 million per-year commitment to reverse child obesity trends – the single largest effort of its type in history. The food industry spends more than that every month, marketing primarily junk foods directly to youth, just in the United States.”

The authors proposed strategies to address the issue, including: stronger regulatory authority both nationally and internationally; a monitoring system for industry self-regulation already in place; and careful consideration of the World Health Organization’s advertising recommendations that are expected to be released this year. The authors also pointed to strategic research and policy questions that should be explored.

National Menu Labeling Law Could Soon Be a Reality

Congress is set to deliberate on health care reform in the coming weeks, a bill that now includes a strong menu labeling law.

A bi-partisan group of senators, including Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), collaborated with the National Restaurant Association to negotiate the Menu Education and Labeling Act (MEAL). The proposed legislation is tied to the health care reform bill, and if passed, would require chain restaurants nationwide to display calories on menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sponsored the companion bill in the House.

Proponents of the legislation are hopeful. If the bill passes, restaurants with 20 or more locations would be required to disclose calorie counts and have additional nutrition information available for customers upon request. MEAL has been proposed in previous sessions of Congress, but met strong opposition from Republicans and industry leaders. “If passed, this legislation will help people all across the country by giving them the information they need to make informed nutrition decisions at fast food restaurants. It is sound public health policy,” said Roberta Friedman, ScM, Rudd Center Director of Public Policy.

In an effort to address the obesity epidemic, California and New York City implemented menu labeling provisions last year. In New York City, 82 percent of surveyed individuals reported that caloric information on menus affected their food choices. The study, conducted by Technomic Inc. and published in February, revealed that after seeing the nutrition information, 71 percent of individuals said they chose lower calorie options and 51 percent said they no longer ordered certain items.

The Rudd Center has a number of resources on menu labeling:

Help Choose the Most Influential Childhood Obesity Research

It's been two years since the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that they would award $500 million in grants to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015, including the Rudd Center’s two Healthy Eating Research grants as well as a grant to examine food marketing practices directed at youth. To accomplish their goal, they have been building the evidence about the problem and what interventions work, as well as turning the evidence into action.

Now, they want to know what you think. After conducting a thorough literature search and consulting with childhood obesity experts, they selected 20 recently published articles that they believe have the potential to influence the field in the coming years. They would like you to nominate the five you think are the most influential.

View the nominees and vote.

Voting ends July 10, so vote now, and feel free to pass this e-mail along to your colleagues and encourage them to vote.

Spotlight on Rudd Center Affiliated Faculty: Tamas Horvath, PhD

Tamas Horvath is Chair and Professor of Comparative Medicine and Professor of Neurobiology and Obstetrics & Gynecology at Yale University. His primary research interest is the neuroendocrine regulation of homeostasis. He focuses on metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes, and the effect of metabolic signals on higher brain functions and neurodegeneration. He is currently researching the role of synaptic plasticity in the mediation of peripheral hormones’ effects on the central nervous system.

Dr. Horvath has collaborated with the Rudd Center on the effects of perception of quality of food in autonomic and endocrine responses to food intake.

He earned his DVM from the University of Veterinary Sciences and his PhD from Szeged University, both in Hungary.

Dr. Horvath’s research has been published in Science, Nature, Nature Medicine, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Cell Biology, Cell, Cell Metabolism, and Neuron, among many other notable journals.

Click here to read more about Horvath’s work.

Library of Podcasts (Partial List)

Barry M. Popkin, PhD
Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition; Director, Interdisciplinary Center for Obesity, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Nutrition Transition

Michael W. Hamm, PhD
C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, Departments of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies, Crop and Soil Sciences, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Michigan State University
The Importance of Sustainable Food Systems

David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD
Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program, Children’s Hospital Boston
An Integrative, Family-Based Approach to Childhood Obesity

Christina Economos, PhD
New Balance Chair, Childhood Nutrition; Associate Director, John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
Shape Up Somerville - A Social Movement

Kelly D. Brownell, PhD
Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University
A Perspective on Taxing Sugared Beverages

David Wallinga, MD, MPA
Wm T Grant Foundation Fellow, University of Minnesota; Director, Food and Health Program Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Overfed and Undernourished: Downstream Impacts of a Flawed Farm Policy?

Walter C. Willett, MD, MPH, DrPH
Chair, Department of Nutrition; Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health
Eliminating Trans Fat from the Food Supply: The Tortuous Road from Science to Policy

Our collection of podcasts is available for download on iTunes U, under the Yale University Health & Medicine – Nutrition & Obesity category. You also may subscribe to an RSS Feed that will automatically update whenever new content is released. Podcasts can be listened to on a computer or downloaded to a music player.

Front Burner News

AMA Objects to Calling Obesity a Disability

The American Medical Association has formally opposed efforts by advocacy groups to define obesity as a disability. Doctors fear that using that definition makes them vulnerable to lawsuits from obese patients who do not want their doctors to discuss their weight. Read the full article.

Health Care Providers Are Guilty of Weight Bias

Weight bias has become increasingly common among health care providers in recent years. The Rudd Center offers suggestions to create a supportive medical environment for overweight patients. For the full article, click here.


Soda Tax Mulled as Senators Seek Health Overhaul Money

The Senate Finance Committee has been considering the possibility of attaching a federal excise tax for the first time to soda and other drinks sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners. Some leading health experts applaud the idea, saying the tax could cut consumption of high-calorie soda and help obese Americans lose weight. For the full article, click here.

Healthier Fast Food Items Ordered

The eating habits of American children appear to be shifting. New market research from the NPD Group shows that consumption of chicken nuggets, burgers, fries, and colas is declining, while soup, yogurt, fruit, grilled chicken, and chocolate milk are becoming more popular. For the full article, click here.

Maine’s Anti-Obesity Measures Applauded

Lawmakers and advocates marked the passage of three bills aimed at combating obesity in Maine, the state with the highest rate of obesity in New England. The new anti-obesity measures focus on menu labeling in chain restaurants and school-based initiatives. Read the full article.

U.S. Children at Risk of 'Recession Obesity'

Children in the United States are at risk of "recession obesity" as parents substitute cheap, fast food for healthy meals to try to weather the economic slump, according to the Child Well-Being Index. For the full article, click here.

Healthy Habits in Decline

Over the last 20 years, the obesity rate for Americans age 40 to 74 has increased to 36 percent from 28 percent, according to a study published in The American Journal of Medicine. In this same age group, fewer adults eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day – the figure has dropped to 26 percent from 42 percent. Click here for the full article.

Big Mac Leads Obesity Charge in Australia

Fast food restaurants could soon be forced to display nutrition labels on menus in Australia as part of the government's crackdown on the obesity crisis. McDonald's, which displays the content of its food for Australian customers on a nutrition information panel, is demanding other restaurants follow suit. For the full article, click here.



Michelle Obama: School Lunch Should Be a Lesson

Legislators and USDA officials see school meals as an opportunity to ensure that students are getting the proper nutrients in the proper amounts, at least for one meal of the day. They say an investment in nutritious school meals will be a down payment on health care reform. Michelle Obama believes school lunch is a learning opportunity, and a way to instill lifelong healthy habits in American children and families. For the full article, click here.

A Healthy Tax

A small tax on soda could raise money for health care, either to help finance the reform plan now being considered in Congress or to help fight the obesity epidemic. Americans spend about $50 billion a year on non-diet sodas – even more when counting sugared teas and sports drinks – so even a small tax would add up. For the full article, click here.

Can America's Urban Food Deserts Bloom?

For years, major supermarket chains have been criticized for abandoning densely populated, largely black and Latino communities in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Newark, NJ. Can an inner-city supermarket profitably specialize in fresh produce and meats and be a model solution to urban America's health crisis? Click here for the full article.

Obama Wants a Healthier America

President Barack Obama and Congress are moving across several fronts to give government a central role in making America healthier. Obama wants more time in the school day for physical fitness, more nutritious school lunches, and more bike paths, walking paths, and grocery stores in underserved areas. Click here for the full article.