Walk down the street, scroll on a social media platform, or turn on the TV for more than a few minutes, and you’re sure to encounter an advertisement for a food or beverage — and chances are, it won’t be one that’s good for your health. Whether it’s a Cheetos commercial featuring Bad Bunny, or an Oreo campaign with Lady Gaga, the content we see daily, both online and in stores, encourages us to purchase and consume products that aren’t healthy.
That’s because food and beverage companies spend almost $14 billion on food marketing each year — and more than 80% of that budget goes towards advertising processed foods loaded with sugar and sodium. This ensures that low-nutrient, high-calorie products are the first and most appealing things people see on the shelves, on their TV screens and on their phones. And because of this marketing, for many families across the country, the healthy choice isn’t often the easy, affordable or available one.
In October 2022, the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) Index assessed the 11 largest food and beverage manufacturers in the U.S. on the nutritional value of their products, as well as their nutrition-related commitments, policies and disclosures. While all of these companies — food giants like Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Nestlé — have reupped nutrition as a focus of their corporate strategies since they were first assessed in 2018, their products haven’t actually become healthier. The index also found that these companies, whose products inundate our store shelves, are not following through on their commitments to protect children from the marketing of unhealthy products, despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation that they increase the age threshold for their marketing restrictions to 18 years old. As a result, consumers find themselves struggling to find and purchase healthy products — something especially difficult for young people who may be more easily influenced by colorful packaging, celebrity endorsements or the lower price of a processed snack.
For people of color, this marketing is even more pervasive. A recent report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health found that many of these same companies engage in heavily targeted marketing to Black and Hispanic populations through TV advertising — with serious consequences for long-term health outcomes. While overall budgets for TV advertising decreased from 2017 to 2021, the largest food companies in the U.S. actually ramped up their spending on marketing to communities of color. Because of this, Black youth and adults viewed up to 21% more food and beverage TV ads compared to their white peers, and advertising for candy, sugary drinks and sodium-rich snacks represented three-quarters of Spanish-language TV ad spending in 2021, up from approximately one-half in 2017.
Though food companies spent over $1 billion on targeted marketing of their sugary and salty snacks in 2021, the Rudd report found there wasn’t any advertising for whole foods — produce and other products with minimal processing or additives — on Spanish-language or Black-targeted TV. The total amount spent advertising these products across all demographics? Just $5,000.
This level of intentional marketing cannot be divorced from the reality of health inequities in the U.S. The unhealthy products that food and beverage companies encourage consumers to purchase are directly linked to diet-related diseases like heart disease, obesity and diabetes — which disproportionately impact communities of color.
These companies spend billions of dollars advertising their products: what if that investment went towards creating and marketing products that contribute to positive health outcomes instead? Corporations have a responsibility to all consumers to provide them with products that will nourish their bodies and minds, not harm them. They must develop actionable strategies that boost the nutritional quality of their products, prioritize marketing and increasing the sale of healthier foods, and drastically reduce ad spending on targeted populations — especially youth, communities of color and communities with low incomes.
But self-regulation isn’t enough. In addition, the federal government should bolster its commitment to improving health and nutrition for families in the U.S. by introducing more effective and enforceable standards that better regulate the marketing of unhealthy products.
Everyone deserves access to food that is good for their minds and bodies — and as they buy groceries or flip through channels on TV, they should see a piece of fruit with the same frequency that they see a bag of chips. If we want to make progress in advancing health equity, we must look critically at the food environment in our country and hold accountable those who have designed it to serve their own interests rather than the well-being of our nation’s families and children.