A staggering $120 million is spent per year marketing high-sugar breakfast cereals to children on TV, and a new study says these ads are putting kids at risk for health problems. A poor diet, including too much sugar, can lead to obesity, a known risk factor for 13 cancers.

“One factor believed to contribute to children’s poor quality diets is the marketing of nutritionally-poor foods directly to children,” says Jennifer Emond, PhD, member of the Cancer Control research program at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the lead author on the study by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “Brands specifically target children in their advertising knowing that children will ask their parents for those products.”

The research, which found that kids requested and then enjoyed the sugary brands they have seen recently promoted on their screen, proves that there is indeed a link between advertising and consumer’s choices -- even when it comes to kids.

The problem is, the brands most frequently marketed to children -- designed to attract their attention with animation, mascots, characters, and themes of fun -- far exceed recommended sugar limits. Children’s eating habits develop during the preschool years and children who are overweight by the age of five are likely to remain overweight into adolescence and adulthood.

“Child-targeted marketing of foods high in sugar makes it hard for parents to shape healthy eating habits in our kids. It’s hard to even notice sometimes,” says Edmond. “Efforts to promote and support quality diets at a young age are important to foster the lifestyle behaviors needed to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease including many cancers.”

Reducing the marketing of high-sugar foods to children may ultimately improve diet quality and reduce the risk of obesity and related chronic diseases among children at the population level, the study says.