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Then There's That Other Tv Hazard: Junk Food


Violence-packed cartoons are not the only potential hazard of too much Saturday morning TV. A study finds a sharp increase recently in ads for high-fat foods aimed at youngsters.

Criticism of children's television usually focuses on the mayhem in the programs themselves. However, earlier research has shown that the more TV youngsters watch, the fatter they are and the higher their blood cholesterol levels.

A recent study shows that advertising for fast-food chains and packaged meals, such as canned spaghetti, has suddenly doubled after remaining constant at about 20% of commercials for two decades. And an even bigger proportion of these ads than ever before are filled with images of fatty fried chicken, hamburgers and pizza.

"You can get a healthy meal at a fast food restaurant. But a child watching television doesn't get to see those," says Lisa C. Cohn, a nutritionist who conducted the study with Dr. Thomas J. Starc at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.

Cohn and Starc set out to see what happened on television after the National Cholesterol Education Program drew up new dietary guidelines for children and teen-agers in 1991.

The eating rules suggest that youngsters cut their daily intake of fat to less then 30% of total calories. Saturated fat should make up no more than 10% of calories. Currently, U.S. children get about 36% of their daily calories from fat, and 14% is saturated fat.

The researchers compared Saturday morning broadcasts from 1989 and 1990 to those in 1993 and presented their findings at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Assn.

They found that a youngster who watches five hours of TV on Saturday morning sees 65 food commercials, or about one every five minutes.

The researchers found that this year, 38% of Saturday morning commercials were for fast and packaged foods, and 92% of these ads showed high-fat foods. In 1989, 20% of the ads were in this category, and 64% of them were for high-fat items.

"Current recommendations for low-fat foods are being ignored by commercial television ads aimed at children," says Starc.

"You can eat well in gourmet fashion with low-fat food," comments Dr. Richard Carleton of Brown University. "It's terribly disturbing what they are doing to our children."

Cereal makes up 38% of the food ads aimed at children, and researchers found that none of the cereals promoted were high in fat. About 20% of the drinks and 40% of the snacks advertised were high in fat.

The most common fast-food items advertised were hamburgers, which made up 43% of the fast food pictured, and pizza, which was 28%.

Starc recommends that food advertisers develop more healthy foods for children and promote them in their ads.

"These are 6-year-old kids who are watching these ads," says Starc. "They are not college-educated adults who know how advertising works. Kids need new ideas about what to eat."

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