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Food Ads Targeting Parents Promise Taste, Convenience, but Deliver Poor Nutrition


A majority of food advertisements in magazines targeting parents emphasize products of poor nutritional quality that may contribute to unhealthy weight gain, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Albany and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is published in the current edition of Public Health Nutrition.

For the study, researchers examined food advertisements directed towards parents in national parenting and family magazines. In 476 food ads, which represented approximately 32 percent of all ads in the magazine sample, snack food ads appeared most frequently (13 percent), followed by dairy products (7 percent). The most frequently used ad message was "taste" (55 percent). Other repeating non-food themes used in ads included "convenience," "fun," and "helping families spend time together." Some ads promoted foods as "healthy" (14 percent) and some made specific health claims (18 percent), such as asserting the product would help lower cholesterol.

The researchers also found that more than half (55.9 percent) of the food products advertised were of poor nutritional quality, based on total fat, saturated fat, sodium, protein, sugar, and fiber content, and that ads for these low-nutrition products were slightly more likely to use such sales themes as "fun" and "no guilt."

“Food ads make up a big component of the advertising in these leading parenting magazines; about one-third of the all of ads were for food products for children or the family,” said Katherine Clegg Smith, PhD, an author of the study and associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society. “This study gives us a better idea about the types of foods marketed to parents in these outlets and what types of messages are used to generate interest in a product," said Clegg Smith. "About one in five ads made a claim that a product could improve health in some way—and these claims were just as likely to be found for the least nutritious foods as for the healthier ones.”

The researchers hope their findings will lead to the development of programs or guidelines for parents to help them make sense of information they see in food ads and understand how to identify and interpret marketing messages for foods for themselves and their family.

“A content analysis of food advertisements appearing in parenting magazines” was written by Jennifer A. Manganello, Katherine Clegg Smith, Katie Sudakow and Amber C. Summers.

Media contact: Tim Parsons, director of Public Affairs, at 410-955-7619 or