Study: Least Healthy Cereals Most Marketed to Children

Six hundred and forty-two times a year. That is how often the average American preschooler sees an advertisement for cereal, according to a new study by Yale University.

So it puts things in perspective when the same study says that cereals with the biggest marketing push also happen to be among the least nutritious, when analyzed using a nutrient profiling system developed at Oxford University.

"If one looks at the rank order list of the worst nutrition cereals it's stunning how the worst cereals are marketed so aggressively to children," Kelly Brownell, a co-author of the study, said.

ABC News obtained an advance copy of the study, which will be released Monday when the Obesity Society holds its annual meeting in Washington. The study's authors are posting their findings at CerealFacts.org.

VIDEO: New study accuses food industry of pushing the least nutritious cereals on kids.
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The scathing report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity says it provides proof for parents that children will eat unsweetened cereals if they are offered.

"So, there are ways to train kids to eat healthier food, it's all about what they're exposed to," Brownell said.

Co-Author: Children Are 'Blitzed by Marketing'

Advertisers have found new ways to expose children to their products. At sillyrabbit.com, Trix cereal goes far beyond its old television spot featuring a bouncing rabbit and the slogan, "Trix Are for Kids!" The site gives children entree to a colorful "Trix World" where they can play a bowling game at "Fruitalicious Lanes" or explore a "Rabbitropolis" that has a movie theater showing "Trix Toons."

"You could use the word 'assault' to talk about the way the marketing is going on," Brownell told ABC News. "Children are just blitzed by marketing for the least healthy food products, and there's very little marketing for healthy ones to offset it."

Brownell added, "If you add up all the exposure, on the Internet, billboards, television, what they see in stores, sales, what they're going to see in ... the social media like Facebook, it's just enormous exposure."

Three years ago, the industry announced with some fanfare that it would police itself by setting new standards for the way it markets food for kids.

Under the industry's new standards many of the least nutritional cereals qualify as "better for you" foods, something Brownell called a "demonstrable failure."

"To hear Froot Loops advertised as a 'better for you' food is to me just laughable," said David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"There's something seriously wrong with a nutritional rating system if Froot Loops comes out looking good. This is really like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

Brownell says this only adds to the growing childhood obesity problem and calls today's food environment "toxic" for children.

Industry Pushes Back Against Report

Elanie Kolish, of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative who oversees the industry's self-regulation initiative, disagrees with Brownell's findings.

"Well, I don't know how they came to their conclusion that they are the least nutritional products. Because children's cereals that are advertised in our program are low in calories … and they provide an important source of these nutrients for kids' diets," Kolish said. Kolish's statement is echoed by others in the industry.

"From a calorie and nutrient standpoint, cereal may be the best breakfast choice you could make. In fact, kids who eat cereal more frequently, including presweetened cereals, tend to weigh less than kids who eat cereal less frequently -- and they are better nourished," said General Mills spokeswoman Heidi Geller. General Mills produces Reese's Puffs, Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Trix and Cookie Crisp, among others.

Kellogg spokesman Kris Charles said the company developed a Global Nutrient Criteria; children's cereals that did not meet the new standard were reformulated, or the company stopped marketing them to children under 12. Charles added that from 2006-09, Kellogg reduced its advertising to children under 12 by about 50 percent. Among Kellogg's cereals for kids are Corn Pops and Froot Loops.

PepsiCo, which owns Quaker and Cap'n Crunch, said it is working to further improve the nutrition profile of that cereal.

"As an industry leader in responsible children's marketing, PepsiCo is making ongoing efforts to voluntarily apply a rigorous transformation of its portfolio to meet consumer needs, including products like Cap'n Crunch cereal," spokeswoman Candace Mueller told ABC News.

Top ten advertised cereals to children with poorest nutrition rating, according to the Cereal F.A.C.T.S report:
1. Reese's Puffs
2. Corn Pops
3. Lucky Charms
4. Cinnamon Toast Crunch (tied)
4. Cap'n Crunch (tied)
6. Trix (tied)
6. Froot Loops (tied)
6. Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles (tied)
9. Cocoa Puffs
10. Cookie Crisp
ABC News' Kelly Hagan and Kate McCarthy contributed to this report.

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