WASHINGTON - In a child's buffet of food commercials, more than 40 percent of the dishes are candy, snacks and fast food. Nowhere to be found: fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry or seafood.
For years, health officials have warned that kids were being inundated with commercials about not-so-healthy foods.
Now researchers have put numbers to those warnings in the largest-ever study of commercials aimed at children.
"The vast majority of the foods that kids see advertised on television today are for products that nutritionists would tell us they need to be eating less of, not more of, if we're going to get a handle on childhood obesity," said Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts health research.
Overall, the foundation's researchers monitored 13 television networks.
The viewing took place primarily between late May and early September 2005.
They saw 2,613 ads featuring food and drinks that targeted children and teens.
Children ages 8-12 see the most food ads on TV - an average of 21 a day, or 7,600 a year.
Teenagers see slightly fewer - 17 a day, or about 6,000 a year; and children ages 2-7 see the fewest - 12 a day or 4,400 a year.
In December 2005, the Institute of Medicine concluded that marketing practices from the food and beverage industry are out of balance with recommended diets for children and contribute to an environment that puts children's health at risk.
The institute recommended that companies shift their advertising to emphasize food and drinks that are substantially lower in calories, fats, salt and sugars.
In November, 11 major food and drink makers, including companies such as McDonald's, The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., agreed to adopt new voluntary rules for advertising.
The companies said they would devote at least half their advertising directed to children to promote healthier diets and lifestyles.
The rules have not gone into effect yet.
However, the researchers said they believe that the study released Wednesday will serve as an important benchmark that could help determine whether the voluntary guidelines lead to any significant changes in advertising content.
Advertisers have stressed that the content of food ads has already begun to change, with more ads promoting healthy foods and exercise than during 2005.