New reports show how retailers and advertisers push sugar on kids

Parents are becoming ever more concerned about the amount of sugar their kids are ingesting, yet U.S. children are eating three times the recommended daily limit. Three recent reports offer new insights as to why that is (Hint: It’s not because parents don’t care.)

The Center for Science in the Public Interest hired investigative journalist Gary Rivlin, a former business reporter for the New York Times, to look into retailer practices that push high-sugar products. The resulting report, Rigged: Supermarket Shelves for Sale, sheds light on the “pay to play” system for deciding which items are stocked on grocery shelves. 


Key insights related to sugar include:

  • Almost two thirds of shoppers bypass the candy aisles, but they can’t skip going through the checkout. Those six inches by the register, where impulse buying is high, can account for more than half of a candy maker’s profits in a store;
  • The country’s supermarkets are able to get away with markups of 40 percent or more above wholesale on items they sell by the cash register;
  • It’s often the smaller companies that tend to be promoting better eating;
  • The stores are the gatekeepers. Over time, manufacturers have shifted their spending from the “air wars”—advertising—to the “ground wars” of battling it out inside the supermarket.

Even with this spending shift, the advertising “air wars” are still taking a toll on children’s health. Another CSPI report, Milkshakes, Sugary Cereals, Candy: What Nickelodeon is Peddling to Kids, reviewed food advertising on Nickelodeon’s children’s programming. Key insights include:

  • The most common products marketed to children were fast foods and other restaurant foods, sweetened yogurts, sugary cereals, and sweetened beverages;
  • Of the food ads shown, 77 percent were from companies that participate in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an industry self-regulation program;
  • Over the years, parents, organizations, and members of Congress have written thousands of letters to Nickelodeon about its food advertising, yet the company still does not have a clear policy on food marketing to children.

The need for stronger policies to protect children from sugar was also highlighted in the Union of Concerned Scientists report, Hooked for Life: How Weak Policies on Added Sugars Are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk. The authors found that:

  • Food companies tap into children’s inherent preference for sugar and exploit their taste buds;
  • The food industry disproportionately targets low-income children and children of color;
  • A lack of strong federal policies and industry’s push to increase the appeal of foods by making them sweeter and cheaper have led to a food system that fails to protect our children’s health.

Recommendations include:

  • The Federal Trade Commission should set mandatory limits on advertising of foods and beverages targeted towards children, rather than allowing industry to use its own, voluntary standards;
  • The Food and Drug Administration should reduce the daily recommended limit for added sugars for four-years-olds to 25 grams from the current 50 grams. It should also designate a disqualifying level for added sugars, above which food products may not contain health or nutrient claims;
  • The Surgeon General should issue a call to action for reduced intake of added sugar for young children.

For more information about what can be done to bring children’s sugar back to healthy levels, view our toolkit at



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