Food commercialism in schools is characterized by exclusive beverage or food contracts with certain companies, along with incentives, profits and advertising. Although beverage vending in schools has decreased over the past 5 years, a new study reveals that students are still highly exposed to the marketing of certain food products – most of which are nutritionally poor.

According to the American Heart Association, around 1 in 3 children in the US is overweight or obese, putting them at risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and increased blood cholesterol levels.

With childhood obesity on the rise, food and beverage companies that market their unhealthy products toward children have come under criticism as of late.

And although the percentage of students who attend schools with exclusive beverage contracts (EBCs) decreased from 2007 to 2012, new research shows that many students are still exposed to unhealthy beverages and foods in their schools.

The research, conducted by Yvonne Terry-McElrath and colleagues from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Using a survey of school administrators, the team estimated the exposure of elementary, middle and high school students to school-based commercialism between 2007 and 2012.

They found that whereas 10.2% of elementary school students attended schools with EBCs in 2007, this percentage decreased to 2.9% by 2012. And this number also decreased for high school and middle school students during that time period.

However, as of 2012, 49.5% of middle school students and 69.8% of high school students still attended schools with EBCs.

And for food vending, 24.5% of middle school students and 51.4% of high school students attended schools in 2012 where company-sold food vending was readily available.

Fast food, a major contributor of saturated fats and empty calories, was available to 10.2% of elementary students, 18.3% of middle school students and 30.1% of high school students at least once a week in 2012, the researchers also found.

Concluding their study, the authors write:

Although there were significant decreases over time in many of the measures examined, the continuing high prevalence of school-based commercialism supports calls for, at minimum, clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages marketed to youth in school settings.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found that exposure to food coupons – the most frequent type of food commercialism found in the study – and EBCs was higher for students who attended schools with a low or middle student body socioeconomic status.

In a linked editorial to the study, Jennifer L. Harris and Tracy Fox note that food companies spend $1.8 billion each year in marketing targeted at young people.

Fast foods, sugary drinks, sugary breakfast cereals and candy account for 90% of this marketing budget, they note.

They conclude their editorial by writing:

Policy makers, school district leaders, and parents should take action to ensure that the entire food and nutrition environment in schools promotes students’ health and well-being. School property should be a place where messages to young people strengthen their bodies as well as their minds.”

Medical News Today recently reported on another study that suggested kids’ movies send mixed messages about eating habits to their target audience.