(Reuters) - While U.S. food companies are making healthier breakfast cereals for children, they're also aiming more ads for their unhealthiest products at kids, according to a report issued on Friday.
The "Cereal Facts" study from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity offers an outside assessment of the industry's actions and comes amid rising alarm over diet-related health costs in the United States, where nearly a third of children are overweight or obese.
Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center, lauded cereal makers for changing their recipes to boost fiber and whole grain content while reducing sugar and sodium, but said there was ample room for further improvement.
"It's not enough and the companies are still using all their marketing muscle to push their worst cereals on children," Brownell said.
Spending to promote child-targeted cereals was $264 million in 2011, an increase of more than 30 percent from 2008, according to the Yale study, which follows a similar report three years ago.
The study highlighted aggressive marketing of cereals like General Mills Inc's Reese's Puffs, Kellogg Co's Froot Loops and Post Holdings Inc's Pebbles to children - brands which rank among the lowest for nutrition and the highest for added sugar, according to researchers.
In the three years through 2011, childrens' exposure to television ads for Froot Loops leapt 79 percent; their exposure to ads for Reese's Puffs jumped 55 percent and that for Pebbles was up 25 percent.
While regular Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats have some of the highest nutrition scores, ads for those products were more likely to be targeted at adults, the report said.
The cereal companies defended their marketing practices and their products, which, they said, continued to evolve.
"Kellogg has a long-standing commitment to responsibly market foods that meet strict nutrition criteria to children ages 6 to 12," spokeswoman Kris Charles said in an email.
In a statement, Post said it "continually works to address the nutritional make-up of our brands."
General Mills said it has cut sugar levels in its childrens' cereals by more than 14 percent, on average, since 2007.
Over the past several years, the nation's food and beverage companies have fended off government oversight of marketing to children by promising to police themselves.
Cereal makers Kellogg, General Mills and Post are among companies that have signed on to the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary self-regulation program for food marketed to children.
Participants have agreed to adhere to industry-created nutrition criteria for products advertised to kids under the age of 12.
Critics say those guidelines are less stringent than many health experts would like to see.
"Rudd tends to look at the glass half empty. I look at it as half full and rising," said Elaine Kolish, director of CFBAI, adding that changing kids' tastes would take time.
"The notion that kids could stop eating Froot Loops and go and have Grape-Nuts, with all due respect to Grape-Nuts, to me is unrealistic and not practical," Kolish said, referring to the whole-grain cereal Post cereal promoted by the late Euell Gibbons, who advocated natural diets in the 1960s.
Before CFBAI was founded, some cereals had 15 to 16 grams of sugar per serving. Now, Kolish said, most have no more than 10 grams of sugar - or about 2.5 teaspoons - per serving.
The American Heart Association recommends that no more than half of discretionary calories come from added sugars.
Based on that AHA guideline and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, inactive to moderately active young children, on average, should consume no more than 20 grams of added sugar a day, the report's authors said.
But children, on average, consume two servings of breakfast cereal, the study said.
"Before they leave the house in the morning, children eating these pre-sweetened cereals will have consumed as much sugar as they should eat in an entire day," it said.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Bernadette Baum