Companies marketing food to kids need stronger guidelines, health advocates say

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Marketing unhealthful foods and beverages to children is off the charts, say some food and health advocacy groups, and they called on the Obama administration Thursday to support voluntary guidelines on how companies advertise to kids and how they formulate their products.

To hammer their point home, a video titled “We’re Not Buying It” was unveiled at a press conference Thursday that featured representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Prevention Institute, Public Health Law & Policy, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Berkeley Media Studies Group. The video, which the panelists hope will go viral, highlights the tremendous and sometimes insidious marketing efforts directed to children, often at a pace parents can’t control. With childhood obesity rates still high, they said, something more needs to be done.

Despite being asked to self-regulate, “Companies are still mostly marketing sugary cereals, fast foods, snack foods and sugary drinks,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy. Kids live in a media-saturated environment, she said, in which food packaging, toys and even iPods are not safe from marketing ploys. “Even if a child never watches TV,” Wootan aded, “They’ll still be bombarded by lots and lots of marketing.”


There might be less of an uphill battle, the panelists said, if the Obama administration gave its nod to the guidelines created by the Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children, a group of agencies directed by Congress to come up with guidelines for the nutritional quality of food that’s marketed to children ages 2 to 17. Those agencies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The guidelines focus on two “nutrition principles” for foods marketed to children: Ads and marketing campaigns should encourage kids to choose nutritional foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat; and foods aimed at children should have limits on saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and sodium. The target date for getting everyone on board is 2016.

While Wootan added that lobbyists would like to see the recommendations go away, when the IWG put the guidelines out for public comment, she said 28,000 out of 29,000 comments were positive.

Those recommendations, however, are purely voluntary and are not intended to be a government regulation. Will this truly make the companies change their ways?

“In the years that CSPI has been working on the issue, we’ve seen some promise,” Wootan said, “but we need [companies] to go to the next step. This will give them advice on how to take it further and improve what they’re already doing.” Earlier Wootan cited an analysis done by CSPI in 2009 that found that almost 80% of food ads shown on Nickelodeon were for foods that had meager nutritional quality; that dropped only 10% in 2005.

The Rudd Center released a study in 2010 showing that some companies have been escalating their marketing effort toward children. Analyzing the marketing efforts of and food nutritional information from12 large national fast food chains, researchers found that not only did most of the meal combinations not meet nutrition standards they had set, but many times healthful menu options weren’t always that obvious.


Since then, some restaurant chains such as Burger King and Romano’s Macaroni Grill and other Darden restaurants have vowed to provide more healthful items for kids.

But that’s still not enough, the panelists said. Companies are becoming more creative and forceful with their marketing campaigns. Some foods that claim to contain fruit have none, and sugar content in foods such as kid-friendly breakfast cereals are still high.

“The current system puts all the responsibility on parents to shield their kids,” said Juliet Sims, program coordinator of the Prevention Institute. “But when food marketers have access to children in schools, in stores, on television, and increasingly on the Internet, parents have the odds stacked against them. Limiting the reach of junk food marketing helps shift the balance in the right direction.”