(NaturalNews) Children and teens are viewing significantly more ads for fast food than similarly-aged children did in 2003, according to a year-long U.S. study that analyzed data on nutritional quality of food and media exposure. The study was conducted by members of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
The findings of the research, which are available online on the website Fast Food FACTS, suggest that fast-food companies are stepping up efforts to market unhealthy meal options to children, without equally promoting satisfactory healthy alternatives.
"What we found in the marketing data is a staggering amount of fast-food advertising that starts when children are as young as two years old," said Jennifer Harris, the lead study author.
Harris said that the fast-food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising in 2009, the year in which the study was focused. According to their research, 40% of preschoolers ask to go to McDonald's at least once a week, and 15% ask to go every day; this demonstrates that the increase in those numbers from 2003 implies a correlation between the marketing efforts and the attitudes of children towards this type of food.
According to a telephone briefing with the authors of the study, one-third of U.S. children and teens eat fast food every day, which makes up about 17% of their daily caloric intake.
"Eating at fast food restaurants is ingrained in our culture. That's why the nutritional quality of these meals is so important," said Marlene Schwartz, one of the study's co-authors.
Harris further explained that children believe that fast-food is "normal and expected" and said that the aggressive marketing of fast-food companies is the reason for this behaviour.
The fast-food companies that were analyzed do have healthier options, but these are not promoted to children and teens, even in-store. The researchers sent "mystery shoppers" into restaurants, and in 80% of cases the shoppers were automatically given fries and soda to go with meals, while healthier options were not offered.
Schwartz said in the briefing that the current generation of parents is the first to have been raised with fast-food advertisements. This exposure has led even parents to believe that fast-food is normal for children.
The study also found that fast-food marketing targets youth minorities. African American youth, for example, saw 50% more fast-food television ads and saw increasingly more websites and banner ads in 2009 than did their white counterparts.
The authors of the study hope these results will instigate new strategies including implementing restrictions for the restaurants, rather than just promoting education which "doesn't seem to be working".
In advising parents how to handle this alarming increase, Harris said: "The only way to control what kids are seeing is to turn off the TV. No matter what's on, you're going to see a lot of fast food ads."