Despite all the attention and research devoted to best practices in children’s health, some of the top foods companies make and market to children are still the least healthy.

That’s one of the take-aways from a troubling new report on kids’ cereals from the Yale Rudd Center For Food Policy and Obesity.

The report shows that even with a food and beverage industry pledge in 2006 to overhaul its approach to children’s cereal, companies continue to pour money into marketing the most sugar-laden products.

(Gene J. Puskar)

They found an overall improvement in the nutritional quality of cereals in recent years, but the products are still much worse than those sold to adults. They, in general, have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber and 50 percent more sodium.

One of the enduring debates surrounding the childhood obesity crisis is how much responsibility falls on parents’ shoulders and how much on the back of industry. Child advocates often argue that what’s clear is that well-funded marketing campaigns for the unhealthiest food exacerbate the situation.

This report fuels such criticism, as it found that the most heavily marketed cereals are also the worst nutritional options — products like Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and a bad-idea-in-a-box called Reese’s Puffs.

Nearly 90 percent of cereal ads targeting children are for products with a sugar content higher than 26 percent, researchers found.

Another significant finding: Marketing to Hispanic families skyrocketed as spending for advertising on Spanish-language TV more than doubled.

The report was officially presented yesterday at the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Beforehand, I caught up with Jennifer Harris, the Center’s Director of Marketing Initiatives and the lead researcher on the report.

She said what surprised her most about the results of the report is that how so little has changed in the past three years.

“The industry seems to think that slight improvements in the nutrition quality of unhealthy products is all that’s required. That gives them permission to continue to market their least nutritious products to children as aggressively as ever. They clearly aren’t committed to improving children’s diet and health.”

“…It’s not difficult to convince children that they must have these really sweet products — who would not want cookies for breakfast? It would probably be tougher to convince children that the lower sugar, more nutritious products they offer are fun and cool. But I’m convinced that they have the resources and creativity to do that, if they wanted to.”

But is this all the industry’s fault?

To paraphrase the old saying, you can lead a parent to the cereal aisle, but you can’t make them buy Cookie Crisp.

I posed the argument to Harris: If parents didn’t buy sugar-laden cereals, than the industry would change course and offer, as well as promote, healthier cereals. The industry is just following consumer demand, no?

Her response:

“It’s absolutely true that cereal companies wouldn’t advertise these products if parents didn’t buy them, and that’s the reason we do these reports.

“Traditionally, parents have bought these cereals because their kids see the advertising and must have the products. But it appears that parents are starting to question whether these are products they should feed their children.

“One thing we’ve seen in the past three years is an increase in advertising to parents with messages about the health benefits of children’s cereals. Our research shows that these messages mislead parents to believe that children’s cereals (companies’ least nutritious products) are healthier than other cereals.

“We hope that our research helps increase parents’ awareness that these products are not good for their children, and that there are many more nutritious cereals that children will eat.”

What do you think? How much is industry to blame for the persistence of unhealthy children’s food purchases? How much are parents to blame?

Will news of children’s cereals’ poor nutritional quality change your buying habits?

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