Do Food Ads Promote Childhood Obesity?

The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 7 No. 3 • June 2004


I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
— Poul Anderson, in New Scientist, Sept. 25, 1969
At this time, three fruits—oranges, apples, and bananas—account for 50% of all fruit servings. Iceberg lettuce, frozen potatoes, and potato chips account for 33% of vegetable servings. Diets composed of lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit are likely to cost more.
— Adam Drewnowski, Director, Nutrition Science Program, University of Washington; reported in Food Technology, June 2004
… the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals data indicate that people with high incomes are more likely to choose diet soda and skim milk, whereas people with low incomes tend to choose regular soda and whole milk. Thus obesity may be related more to education and choice rather than [to] economics.
— Richard Mattes, Professor, Dept. of Foods & Nutrition, Purdue University; reported in Food Technology, June 2004
Comment: The amount and type of education you buy, in addition to other purchase choices you make (including those concerning what foods to buy), are all influenced by cost. Going by the prices in our local supermarket, a diet heavy in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is much more expensive than a diet low in those foods. Moreover, the prevention by the FDA of food companies’ dissemination of truthful, nonmisleading information concerning specific benefits of eating these expensive foods has a negative impact on the likelihood of the less informed public’s choosing to buy them. We and our coplaintiffs continue with the expensive court battles to force the FDA to obey the First Amendment’s mandate that the Congress (and, by delegation, the FDA) “make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” One of our suits, Whitaker v. Thompson, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court in a petition for cert. This is an important case because the FDA claims that nobody can put truthful information concerning the effect of a dietary supplement on a current disease (treatment claim) on a label or in labeling (literature that accompanies a product) of dietary supplements, because this would turn the supplement into an unapproved drug. We argue that the First Amendment prohibits the FDA from preventing the communication of truthful, nonmisleading information and that it also prohibits the severity of regulations (as in drug vs. dietary supplement) being based solely upon the content of truthful speech.
On May 27, 2003, the White House urged government health agencies to encourage Americans to increase their consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids …
Comment: The FDA has actually stated, in response to the White House statement, that getting the public to consume more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids is one of the FDA’s goals. So why is it that the only health claim the FDA allows (after seven years of litigation) for omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils is the following “qualified” claim: “Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. FDA evaluated the data and determined that, although there is scientific evidence supporting the claim, the evidence is not conclusive.” We have argued (though not yet in an FDA lawsuit) that this FDA disclaimer actually discourages people who rely upon this information from consuming omega-3 fatty acids because it makes the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids appear much weaker than they are, as reported in hundreds of papers in the scientific literature. In order to prove that their disclaimer is discouraging, rather than encouraging, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (which, if proven, would be a powerful weapon to use in a suit against the FDA’s misleading “disclaimer”), we would need to commission a professionally conducted public survey. The cost of such a survey has been ascertained; it would run about $65,000. Unfortunately, none of the remaining coplaintiffs, including ourselves, have the money to spare to pay for this survey. About 150,000 Americans continue to die each year from preventable sudden-death heart attacks.

Do Food Ads Promote Childhood Obesity? Two Studies Suggest They Don’t

Two new studies have examined the effect of food ads on children and teenagers. One, supported by the Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, found that children under 12 see fewer food and fast food ads today than a decade ago.1 The other, which came from the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning,1 found that the percentage of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders who watch four or more hours of TV a day on weekdays has been dropping since 1991. Todd J. Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University, who conducted the study, states that kids are spending more time playing video games and watching more videos. “They may have more screen time, but they see less [sic] ads,” he said. He considers the case for increased food-ad exposure as a cause for obesity to be pretty weak. He also notes that kids are watching more cable as compared to noncable TV, and that 72% of broadcast TV spots were for food, compared to 36% of cable spots.

The first study reported that kids today are seeing fewer food and fast food ads than a decade ago. They found that in 1994, kids under 12 saw an average of 5909 broadcast and cable TV ads for food or fast food, while in 2003, they saw 5038.

One would hope that any consideration of government regulation of truthful ads would be moot, in light of the First Amendment and of recent commercial speech decisions by the courts, but the fear of well-funded lawsuits against food companies is certainly realistic, hence the need for data rather than conjectures about what is behind increasing obesity among children.

  1. Teinowitz. Don’t blame ads: kids view fewer food commercials. Advertising Age, June 14, 2004.

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