Every five years, the federal government reviews and adjusts its dietary recommendations for Americans. The latest revisions, which will be released in December, are being developed amidst alarm over childhood obesity rates. Children in the US and other nations are heavier than ever, and public health experts are asking why.
One suspected culprit is the packaged food industry, because of the kinds of products that it markets directly to children. Recent industry initiatives, while welcome, haven’t done enough to get empty calories out of the American childhood diet.
20% of Toddlers Now Obese, Cereals Aimed at Kids Have 85% More Sugar
According to a 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 17% of American children and adolescents between the ages of two and nineteen years old are clinically obese. Between the ages of two and five, obesity is prevalent in 19.6%. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity in children and adolescents makes them prone to other health problems. Obese children are more at risk for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes. A new CDC study released last week finds that incidence of Type 2 diabetes could grow from 1 in 10 people today to an astounding 1 in 3 by 2050. Obesity has also been linked to asthma, sleep apnea, and liver problems.
How much does food industry marketing contribute to this problem? Research indicates that it can play a significant role. In a study conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in October 2009, researchers found that cereal was the packaged food most frequently marketed to children – and the cereals directed at children were "junkier" than those sold to adults.
According to the study, compared to the types of cereal advertised to adults, those marketed to children had 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber, and 60% more sodium. Some examples included cereals produced by Kellogg Company and General Mills, Inc. such as Reese’s Puffs, Corn Pops, Lucky Charms, and Golden Grahams, all of which received poor nutritional scores.
Another study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in July 2010 concluded that children and teens see substantially more advertising for fast food than adults do. This exposure builds brand loyalty to unhealthy foods at an early age.
Industry Self-Regulation of Limited Effect
In response to growing criticism, major food companies formed the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in 2007. The initiative, which is voluntary and self-regulatory, has 17 participants: Burger King, Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Dannon, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestle, PepsiCo, Post Foods, Sara Lee Corp, and Unilever.
The companies are required to establish nutritional criteria for foods and agree to meet these criteria in 50% of advertisements targeting children under twelve. In addition, the companies pledge to refrain from advertising in elementary school, to depict “better-for-you” foods or healthy lifestyles in interactive games for children, and to reduce their use of licensed fictional characters in advertising that does not promote a healthy way of life.
Unfortunately, the CFBAI’s efficacy has been questionable. In 2008, the FTC published a report on the inconsistency in companies’ nutritional standards, and criticized the initiative for only applying the standards to a portion of overall advertising to children.
A recent New York Times article reported that Kellogg’s nutritional standards allow it to advertise high sugar products and candy, such as Frosted Flakes and Yogos. In addition, McDonald’s and Burger King have continued to advertise their Happy Meals and Kids Meals, justifying these products' high calorie content by including apples and low fat milk in the commercials.
Although an analysis conducted by the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) confirmed that products being advertised by CFBAI participants were meeting their own pledged nutritional standards, it reported that 59% of the approved products did not meet a set of standards developed by nutrition and health experts, and characterized 59% of the products as being “of poor nutritional quality.”
Some Leaders and Laggards
While many companies in the food industry have failed to adequately address the issues of child health and nutrition, a few have taken the lead in establishing strong food-marketing policies and reforming the nutritional content of their products.
Mars, for example, ranked the highest on CSPI’s Food-Marketing Policy Report Card, which was published in March 2010. Unlike other CFBAI members, the company does not market its products to children under 12 years old, and its policy applies to all key media approaches, except for on-package marketing and marketing in high schools.
Danone Group also maintains a more comprehensive policy than others in the industry. The company has developed a Food, Nutrition and Health Charter, which states that it is committed to implementing extensive nutritional labeling, scientifically validating health claims, and avoiding health claims on unhealthy foods or junk foods. In 2006, the firm established “Dannon Next Generation Nutrition Grants” to provide funding for programs that promote childhood nutrition in local communities.
Companies that received a failing score on CSPI’s Food-Marketing Policy Report Card included Denny’s, which markets nutritionally poor items to children through its children’s menu, website games, and a children’s birthday club; Topps, which uses popular musicians to entice children to purchase candy; and American Dairy Queen, which markets unhealthy products to children through its child-directed website and kids’ meals.
Feds Caught Between Consumer, Producer Interests
In December 2009, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agencies released a preliminary proposal for stricter regulation of food marketing to children. This has met strong resistance from the food and advertising industries.
Writing in the Washington Post, Jane Black has explored how hard it is for government to speak with one voice about what Americans should eat. Food producers are politically powerful, and therefore the Federal guidelines rarely tell consumers to eat less:
In 1977, a Senate select committee led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was forced to beat a hasty retreat after it initially recommended that Americans could cut their intake of saturated fat by reducing their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Its revised guidelines suggested choosing "meat, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake."
McGovern, whose constituents included many cattle ranchers, lost his seat in 1980. Since then, in case after case, the guidelines have refrained from suggesting that Americans eat less of just about anything.
Public health advocates say that kind of vacuum is precisely the problem: By avoiding blunt messages about what not to eat, the government has spoken in a way that baffles consumers.
For the new guidelines to have any impact on childhood obesity, they’ll need to do more than just carry “blunt messages” about what children should eat. They also must counter the message of corporate food marketing to children.
Also see this October 17 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on the struggle to persuade Americans to eat their veggies.
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