updated 10/18/2006 8:11:23 AM ET 2006-10-18T12:11:23

The Walt Disney Co. will serve healthier meals at its domestic theme parks and reduce fat and sugar in Disney-branded foods as part of a push to improve the diets of children, the company said Monday.

The guidelines will also extend to fast food restaurants that sign deals to promote Disney movies.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said the move came in response to comments from parents about the eating habits of their kids.

The company was “well aware of the huge responsibility we have, given our reach and our ability to impact people’s behavior and opinions,” Iger told The Associated Press from Singapore, where he was on business.

Given the increased attention to healthier eating, “it was the right thing to do,” he said Disney owns theme parks in Orlando, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., along with its movie studio and ABC television network.

A consumer advocacy group said Disney didn’t go far enough, particularly concerning TV commercials aimed at children.

“If Disney really cared about kids, it would stop all marketing of junk food to children, including on ABC,” Gary Ruskin, executive director of the watchdog group Commercial Alert, said in a statement.

Other critics said companies such as Disney were trying to avoid lawsuits and possible federal regulations over childhood obesity.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, praised Disney’s new guidelines.

“I hope that this move is only a first step, and that we can continue to do more to protect our children’s health,” said Harkin, who is spearheading legislation to restore the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the advertising of junk food to people under 18.

Under the Disney plan, trans fats will be eliminated from meals at domestic parks by the end of next year and will not be included in licensed and promotional products by 2008.

Other changes will be implemented during the next several years as current contracts expire.

Iger said the company also sees a business opportunity in promoting and licensing healthier products, ranging from breakfast cereals to the children’s meals it serves at its 11 worldwide theme parks.

The entertainment giant currently licenses characters to Indianapolis-based produce distributor Imagination Farms LLC to provide fruits and vegetables for the Disney Garden brand.

Other large consumer products companies also are pushing healthier eating.

McDonald’s Corp. has been adding more salads and fruit to its menus, while Wendy’s International Inc. recently said it would switch to cooking french fries and breaded chicken items with non-hydrogenated oil.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to study links between the ads that appear on kids TV shows and the rise of childhood obesity.

A number of entertainment companies have come under fire for maintaining marketing deals with fast food chains and junk food makers.

Last year, Disney and McDonald’s ended an exclusive 10-year deal to promote animated films using Happy Meals. The move coincided with a growing national interest in healthier eating for kids — although both companies said the decision had more to do with a desire to work with other promotional partners.

The company will keep licensing sweets for special occasions, such as birthday cakes and holiday candies, but will limit the number of “indulgence” items in its total food portfolio to 15 percent by 2010.

Starting this month, kid’s meals at Disney’s domestic parks are being served with low-fat milk, 100 percent fruit juice or water, along with side dishes such as apple sauce or carrots in place of french fries and soft drinks.

Parents can still request soda or fries at no additional cost.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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